Books Read ~ 2014

My Pre-Thesis PresentationI’ll be doing this list just as I have all the others from years past ( 2013, 2012, 2011). You get the name of the book, the author, the genre and the date completed. If the book was worthy of a note–positive or negative–I give it one. Otherwise, consider it an average book. If there is an *next to the book that means you’d be wise to get yourself a copy and read it.

My goal, as it is every year, is to read 52 books a year, that is on average one a week. One thing to note: this year I read almost 25% more than I did last year and last year I read 75, which astonished me. This year? Ninety and heading towards ninety one as I write this.

Anyway, let’s get to it:

1. Du Fu: A Life in Poetry trans. David Young: poetry, completed January 7, 2014

The single greatest Chinese poet ever. This is an excellent volume with which to get acquainted.

2. Time Among the Maya by Ronald Wright: non-fiction, completed January 12, 2014

This was a solid book in the context of my reading: I had just returned from Guatemala and Tikal in particular. Well written and interesting. But, since I returned to the Mayan region in the summer and excavated by hand a portion of a pyramid I no longer have any interest in the Mayans, at all.

3. The Purpose of the Past by Gordon Wood: history, completed January 20, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

4. The World of Late Antiquity by Peter Brown: history, completed January 23, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

5. The Fall of Rome by Bryan Ward-Perkins: history, completed January 24, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

*6. The Columbian Exchange by Alfred Crosby: history, completed January 24, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course. This book really needs no introduction. Any man or woman who considers him or herself to be well-educated should have read this book at least once. Linguistics!

7. Becoming Mex-Am by George Sanchez: history, completed January 28, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

8. Christians and Pagans by Ramsay MacMullen: history, completed January 31, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

9. The Broken Spears by Miguel Leon-Portilla: history, completed February 1, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

10. Brown in the Windy City by Lilia Fernandez: history, completed February 2, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

11. The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels: history, completed February 7, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

12. Lieutenant Nun by Catalina de Erauso: memoir, completed February 9, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

*13. Cannery Women and Lives by Vicki Ruiz: history, completed February 9, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course. This book by historian Vicki Ruiz is splendid. It’s a capsule of a time when collective-action was possible and immanent in America, even for minorities like Chicanas. Of all the Chicano history I read this year–and I read close to 20 books–this book was the standout.

14. The Albigensian Crusade by Joseph Strayer: history, completed February 9, 2014 Readings

Assigned for a graduate history course.

16. Saints and Their Miracles by R. Van Dam: history, completed February 15, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

17. History in Six Glasses by Tom Standage: history, completed February 16, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

18. From the Jaws of Victory by Matt Garcia: history, completed February 18, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

*19. Silencing the Past by Michel-Rolph Trouillot: history, completed February 23, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course. However, this was THE book of the year. It is the gold standard of what post-modern theory and methodology can do to the telling and uncovering of history. This is a must read.

20. The Zoot-Suit Riots by Mauricio Mazon: history, completed February 25, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

21. Muhamed & Charlemagne by Henri Pirenne: history, completed February 27, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

22. Muhamed & Charl Reconsidered by Hodges&Whitehouse: history, March 1, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

23. Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon by Mauricio Pagan: history, March 2, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

24. City of Kings by Rosario Castellanos: fiction, March 16, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

25. Youth, Identity, Power by Carlos Munoz: history, March 17, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

26. Forces of Habit by David T. Courtwright: history, March 23, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

27. Raza Si! Guerra No! by Lorena Oropeza: history, March 23, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

28. Early Growth Euro Econ by Georges Duby: history, March 21, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course. Readings

29. The Broken Road by Patrick Leigh Fermor: travel, March 31, 2014

The final installment of PLM’s great trilogy of his youthful excursion walking from the Hook-of-Holland to Istanbul. The first half was lovely, full of his excellent story-telling prose. The last half was clearly patched together by the editors in the aftermath of his death so as to get something published and finish the story.

30. The First European Revolution by R.I. Moore: history, April 4, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

31. Human Trafficking by Louise Shelley: anthropology, April 6, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

32. Medieval Women by Eileen Power: history, April 11, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

33. History Short Intro by John H. Arnold: history, April 14, 2014

Wanted to see how well the Oxford Very Short Introductions hold up across the board by starting with what I know: history. This one was okay.

34. Marginal Society Paris by B. Geremek: history, April 19, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

35. A Place in the Country by W.G. Sebald: essays, April 22, 2014

Another posthumous book, this one in all parts more coherent and well done than Patrick Leigh Fermor’s, but still lacking in that final draft kind of way. Reading it reminded me that we lost a future Nobel Prize winner when Sebald died. A Little Light Reading

36. Medieval Rural Economy by G. Duby: history, April 25, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

37. My Freshman Year by Rebekah Nathan: memoir, April 27, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

38. A Primer for World History by A. Burton: history, April 27, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

39. The Horse in Human History by P. Kelekna: history, May 3, 2014

Assigned for comprehensive exams. Future source for Master’s thesis.  A decent history of the role horses played in human history, not without flaws, however.

40. Nomads and the Outside World by AM Khazanov: anthropology, May 4 2014

Assigned for comprehensive exams. Future source for Master’s thesis. The gold standard of anthropology on nomads.

41. Early Seljuq History by A.C.S. Peacock: history, May 9, 2014

Assigned for comprehensive exams. Future source for Master’s thesis.

*42. A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes: fiction, May 23, 2014

This was a very fun and interesting spin and take on Noah’s Ark. I highly recommend it.

43. Devil Colony by James Rollins: fiction, May 27, 2014

Garbage fiction, fun to read, good to clear the mind. Ultimately just rubbish. Life of a Student

44. The Burning Land by Bernard Cornwell: fiction, June 1, 2014

Garbage fiction, fun to read, good to clear the mind. Ultimately just rubbish.

45. A History of the Seljuks by Ibrahim Kafesoglu: history, June 13, 2014

Assigned for comprehensive exams. Future source for Master’s thesis.

46. Turkestan Down To Mongol Invasion by Vasily Barthold: history, June 19, 2014

Assigned for comprehensive exams. Future source for Master’s thesis.

47. Earthly Measures by Edward Hirsch: poetry, June 20, 2014

*48. Ambivalent Conquests by Inga Clendinnen: history, June 21, 2014

Assigned for comprehensive exams. This book is the book to help the reader gain a better appreciation of the Inquisition in New Spain.

*49. Chess Story by Stefan Zweig: fiction, June 30, 2014

Zweig: what is there to say? Get the book, read it. You can thank me later.

50. Napoleon’s Defeat by Philippe-Paul de Segur: history, July 13, 2014

A personal memoir from one of Napoleon’s aides-de-camp. Quite fascinating inside portrait of Napoleon and how the myth got made. Simulacra

51. The Fire Gospel by Michael Faber: fiction, July 28, 2014

Garbage fiction, fun to read, good to clear the mind. Ultimately just rubbish.

52. Modern Inquisitions by Irene Silverblatt: history, August 10, 2014

Assigned for comprehensive exams.

53. Go Betweens by Alida Metcalf: history, August 16, 2014

Assigned for comprehensive exams.

54. Memoirs of a Revolutionary by Victor Serge: memoir, August 17, 2014

This was an excellent, if difficult book. One of the many books circling around Marxism I read this year. Serge is an important character in the early 20th century attempt to create Communism from nothing.

55. Fear by Gabriel Chevallier: fiction, August 24, 2014

France’s version of All Quiet on the Western Front.

56. Metaphysical Dog by Frank Bidart: poetry, August 28, 2014

57. The Professor and the Siren by G.T. Lampedusa: fiction, August 31, 2014

An interesting and edifying novella.

58. Recreating Africa by James H. Sweet: history, September 8, 2014

Assigned for comprehensive exams.

59. The Faces of Honor by Johnson and Lipsett-Rivera:  history, September 13, 2014

Assigned for comprehensive exams.

60. On Being Blue by William H. Gass: belles-lettres, September 16, 2014

In essence a long essay on the color and definition and uses of the word blue.

61. Women Who Live Evil Lives by Martha Few: history, September 19, 2014 

Assigned for comprehensive exams.

62. The Blindfold by Siri Hustvedt: fiction, September 20, 2014

Another post-modern novel. Well done. Not overlong. Compelling story of New York in the 90s.

63. The Mexican Frontier by David J. Weber: history, September 21, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

64. The Anti-Christ by Friedrich Nietzsche: philosophy, September 28, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course. Reading

65. Foucault for Beginners by Lydia Fillingham: philosophy, September 28, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

66. Line in the Sand by Rachel St. John: history, September 29, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

67. Imperial Subjects by Fisher and O’Hara, eds: history, September 29, 2014. 

Assigned for a graduate history course.

68. The Great Seljuks  by Aziz Basan: history, September 29, 2014

Future source for Master’s thesis.

*69. America by Jean Baudrillard: philosophy, October 1, 2014

My first full Baudrillard text. Fascinating view of America by one of France’s premier post-modern theorists, especially in the context of my drive to Joshua Tree National Park this summer.

70. The White Scourge by Neil Foley: history, October 13, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

71. Origin Family, Property, State by Friedrich Engels: philosophy, October 19, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

72. Troublesome Border by Oscar J. Martinez: history, October 19, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

73. Three Essays on Sexuality by Sigmund Freud: psychology, October 19, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

74. Marx for Beginners by Rius: philosophy, October 19, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

*75. Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson: poetry, October 26, 2014

A great poem.

76. Civilization and Discontents by Sigmund Freud: philosophy, November 2, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

77. From Out of the Shadows by Vicki Ruiz: history, November 3, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course. Color

78. Marx, A Short Intro by Peter Singer: philosophy, November 13, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

79. Before Homosexuality in Arabia by Khaled el-Rouayheb: history, November 21, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

80. Quixote’s Soldiers by David Montejano: history, November 24, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

81. Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste by Philip Mirowski: history, November 24, 2014

Blockbuster book that I will not recommend for the following reason: you must have a.) a background in theory and philosophy and b.) a background in finance and economics to get anything from this book. It’s a tough read but ultimately helped me connect the dots between the neoliberal agenda and why there was no reform after the Financial Crisis in 2008.

82. Warriors of the Cloisters by Christopher I. Beckwith: history, December 3, 2014

Future source for Master’s thesis.

83. Places Left Unfinished by John Phillip Santos: memoir, December 6, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

84. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1 by Michel Foucault: history, December 6, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course. This was a disturbing book. In it one can see Foucault emerging as a neoliberal. Although he is not quite there yet in this text, he is getting close. The depiction of how power is distributed is also disturbing. The way he relates it, power is of its own self, indwelling, immanent. Human agency means nothing to it. Now, what is says about sexuality is fascinating: basically this: sexuality as the sum of being is principally a Western thing. Other cultures, like Islam and China and Japan don’t see sexuality as the defining aspect of humans, but simply as pleasure. Only the West obsesses about it, which is one reason the West and Islam don’t understand each other. We see Islam as repressed. They see us as debauched. Both views, from the viewpoint of the observer are valid. Study

85. Strangers in the House by Georges Simenon: fiction, December 7, 2014

My first Simenon mystery. Well done.

*86. Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn: history, December 11, 2014
Future source for Master’s thesis. This book should be read by anyone who considers him or herself educated. It’s a part of the modern canon.

87. How Greek Science Passed to the Arabs by De Lacy O’Leary: history, December 13, 2014

Future source for Master’s thesis.

88. The Landbreakers by John Ehle: fiction, December 21, 2014

This book captures the language of Appalachia better than any other I’ve read. It’s like reading Justified, but takes place in 1780s.

89. Red Doc by Ann Carson: poetry, December 26, 2014 Found Poetry

Sequel to Autobiography of RedNot as good as the first.

90. The Archeology of Knowledge by Michel Foucault: philosophy, December 29, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course. Dense, difficult but important book in the emergence of Foucault as a proto-neoliberal.

91. Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher: theory, December 29, 2014

92. Abolition of Political Parties by Simone Weil: theory, December 31, 2014

This is a book written in 1943 about the Free France exiles in the UK. It has relevance today for contemporary American politics. Political parties should be banned.

Any lessons from this year? No, not really. I read a lot of theory–and I am not ashamed to admit I read several “Beginner’s Guides to So-and-So” first before reading the full text of their works, Marx and Foucault being prime among them. I’m glad I did. It always helps give me a framework for understanding what’s being said.  If you are going to wrestle with the original text of philosophers and know how dense philosophical prose can be, I highly recommend this approach. Most of the theory I read was for one course, A History of Human Sexuality. This course confronted me with multiple ideas and constructs I’d never dealt with before. I can see why modern Anglo-American Conservatives despise the Post-Moderns: they have given historians and philosophers and anthropologists, etc . . . a way of looking at the world that de-essentialized core values, namely Enlightenment Values, and has shown what those core values were built on. For example, people have always wondered about the mindset of a man who could own slaves, have a slave girl as his concubine and write a document as magnificent as our Declaration of Independence, one of the great Enlightenment era texts. Using the tools of Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard, Lyotard and Jameson one can put Thomas Jefferson in his proper context and come to see how he could essentialize rights for white men, but not include all men (and women, for that matter). It wasn’t hypocrisy for him, it’s just the way Enlightenment thinking was structured. Conservatives don’t want to look at this, and yet they use the methods of the Post-Moderns to tear everything liberals and the Left have done. Once they wreck everything, the neoliberals come in and patch things up the way they want them. To understand how that happens you must read Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste by Philip Mirowski. Good Reading

I also read a fuckton of history. I didn’t read nearly enough fiction, but I don’t foresee that changing anytime soon, what with me being in grad school and all.

I did read five books of poetry. That’s something new I’ve been doing: reading a book of poetry all the way through. What I do is leave the book by my bedside and read a handful of poems every night. I must confess: Frank Bidart’s Metaphysical Dog was pretty lame. My poetry professor, Edward Hirsch’s Earthly Measures, was quite lovely. And Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red was a real standout, although the sequel, Red Doc, was flat out weird and disjointed.

Any large themes? Yes, two. First, this was the year of re-investigating Marx and Marxist thought. I had done this in my undergad, as I almost did a Soviet/Russian studies degree. However, I was young and callow then. Furthermore, this year there are several books that I am reading that remain half done regarding Marxism, including Jameson, Marcuse and others. Second, this year was dominated by Chicano studies. Had you asked me a year ago if this is what I wanted to spend half my first year reading I would have said, “nope.” But I am the better for it theoretically, methodologically and personally. I have a much more realistic grounding of how America has totally dominated Mexico since 1846 and how one of the effects of that dominance is the persistent displacement of people North. This is the big secret no one in the US or Mexico talks about: the dominance, not undocumented labor, which is just a symptom.

That being said, the other half of my year was dominated by Central Asia, which included a return journey and a twenty page paper that now serves as the foundation for my Master’s thesis. The thing I’ve loved the most about this year has been my seminar classes, the rough and tumble of debate, the intellectual ferment, engaging with smart people on an almost daily basis. It’s been fantastic and reminds me that I made the right decision returning to school, no matter my age.

Bookshelf Porn

Axis and Allies

A little thought experiment:

Imagine if Samantha Power (the US Ambassador to the UN, a very significant foreign policy position in any presidential administration) had been running our foreign policy during WWII? In the quote below, replace Syria with USSR.

U.S. coordination with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over the airstrikes: Syria, she said, is not a reliable partner. “You’re committing terror against your people, you’re the ones using chemical weapons and barrel bombs, etc. so we didn’t ask for permission — we just offered a notification.”"

This admin runs foreign policy like Barney Fife.

Oh yeah, and didn’t she call Hillary Clinton a monster once, too?

The point: the enemy of my enemy is my friend, at least until the primary enemy is defeated. Strategy 101 people!

Deserts Aren’t Supposed to Be Green

Crazy Rain, Fort Davis, TexasI’ve never seen Trans-Pecos Texas so green. I’m 43 years old and admittedly I’ve been coming out to the Big Bend area since my late twenties so that’s not a very good statistical sample.

Be that as it may: I’m glad that the West of Texas isn’t in hardcore drought like it has been in years passed. I’m also glad to see just about every creek and river on my route for Fort Davis in good health. All except the Pedernales. That river is just dead. Good job Austin!

Here is a link to the Drought Monitor.It’s current for Texas. Look at the area worst hit in Central Texas. That’s pretty much most of San Antonio’s watershed. Except we get most of our water from an underground aquifer and so we won’t see the effect of this drought for a year and we won’t see the recharge, when it comes, for a year.

I hadn’t realized how bad a year Texas was having until I looked at the details. 59% of the state is currently in moderate to exceptional drought status. Three months ago it was 72% and a year ago it was 89%. That’s bad. It isn’t California bad, but we had California’s bad drought in 2010-2011. Relief is expected over the next few months as well as Texas’ traditional September rains arrive. California, I am very sorry to say, is fucked. Another reason Texas can soon expect more Californians to come live here. 

In retrospect, I suppose my comments about healthy creeks and rivers don’t mean diddly-squat. Still, I’ve never seen the area around Fort Davis so green. I can only imagine what Big Bend National Park looks like? It must be amazing, Ocotillo in bloom all over the place? Prickly-pears of all different colors blossoming in the desert? I wish I’d had time to drive down there but it’ll have to wait until later in the year, if I get back out west at all. I might have some research work overseas during the winter break so we’ll see.

I took a detour about three hours out of San Antonio and headed south across Terrell County through the Pecos River canyonlands. I drove across Independence Creek, filled with insanely glorious water. Water so clear it made me want to drink it. Water so clear it made me want to take my sandals off and get my feet wet, walk up and down the creek for a while like I used to when I was a kid.

Of course, it made sense, looking at the water, why landowners are so protective of entry and exit into the Devil’s River (which is on the other side of the Pecos River canyonslands): open that river up to tourism and it’ll be wrecked in two years, even to the most responsible tourists. Industrial tourism has a way of doing that–and no, I am not one to talk. Some places are better off with a conservation easement but no public access. Some places are just better off left alone.

Some places should remain wild.

Then I drove down into Sanderson Canyon, stopped in Sanderson itself for gas and water and chips and then drove on, eager to drive up out of the canyon onto the Marathon Uplift, as they call it geologically. I fiddled around in the road-cuts along the way, messing around in the rocks like a boy. Then, a few miles outside of Sanderson Canyon it all changes. I call it the most gorgeous view in all of Texas, purple mountains and golden grass filled with pronghorns and cattle and the occasional elk.

Except this time it was green.

Beautiful, yet green.

Compare the view atop the Davis Mountains looking south and east just three days ago, and the view on December 29, 2013.

Same place, damned different colors.

Deserts aren’t supposed to be green.

It rained an awful lot, which feels bizarre in Fort Davis. Clouds obscured the skies at the McDonald Observatory so no Star Party, which was why I came out here in the first place. I did get four solid days of daydreaming before the rigors of scholarship begin. Four days to let my brain do nothing but follow the monkey mind wherever it led. Four days of food, fresh air, wild critters and the occasional bird or two.

If you are so inclined you can check out all the photos here:

Green or not: get yourself out to the Big Bend area and the Davis Mountains. It’s the best country Texas has to offer, and country is something we still have a whole hell of a lot of.

The Year 2013 In Books

TruthI’m trying something different this year with my book list. I’m going to make a short comment after listing each book.

But first, the usual questions: are there any themes from this year? Any intellectual currents present in my reading list that I didn’t realize at the time but see now that it’s complete?

First, I read a great deal of Late Classical history, including late Rome, Byzantine, and the early years of the Arab/Muslim Empire. My reading in this area got very granular and specialized. I seemed to know, subconsciously, that I would be studying this stuff in grad school in the near future, although at the time that decision was a long way off.

Second, I read a lot of fiction this year. More so than I do most years. Going forward I am trying to keep the ratio at 3 non-fiction for every 1 fiction. I found fiction to be refreshing and also helped me to make better connections between the non-fiction works I was reading because my mind was fresh and cleared out. There is a place for reading popular fiction.

Third, I read a lot of poetry this year as well. And when I say read a lot of poetry, I mean, I bought a book of poetry and read the entire book. Not straight through, but I’d read a chapter at a time, read something else and then come back to it. This is another habit I hope sticks around. Poetry is good for the soul. It connects us to the longings and shortfalls and loves and desires of others. This remains essential to being human.

Fourth, I read a fair amount of theory and philosophy. This is something I hope to do more of as well. I’ll probably regret this comment when I buy my books for grad school this semester.

Finally, I stayed off the internet for the most part. I didn’t read any blogs, except a select few, mostly because they are all corporately owned media crap blogs now. The blogosphere of 2002-2006 is long dead or assimilated into the power structures that be. This is a shame, but a reality no one can now change. And it will affect the way people read, including books, moving forward. I also watched very little TV, except for a few series, like Justified, Grimm, The Bridge, The Walking Dead (zombies!) and The Borgias.

My target is to read a book a week, which comes out to around 52 books, more or less, for the full year. (This does not include my subscriptions to the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books and the Texas Observer. I won’t read Texas Monthly any more, but that’s a whole ‘nother story, as we say around here.)

In sum, for 2013 I completed 75 books. By far my best year ever and one I seriously doubt I’ll ever match or exceed.

The commentary format below is as follows: title, author, genre, plus date completed and then my personal comments (and any book with an asterisk* next to it is a book you really should buy and read):

Re-Boot!1. Big Machine by Victor Lavalle: fiction: completed January 5, 2013.

So, this guy Victor Lavalle writes a book. I read it. I like it. A lot. I start looking for what else he’s read and find another of his books. I put it in my Amazon Wish List and save it for later in the year.

2. Patient Zero by Jonathan Mayberry: fiction; completed January 12, 2013

A zombie book. ‘Nuff said.

3. Lost to the West by Lars Bronworth: non-fiction; completed January 20, 2012

A enjoyable account of the main episodes in Byzantine history. Good for beginners.

4. Pym by Mat Johnson: fiction, completed January 23, 2013

An ultimately unsuccessful attempt to reinterpret Edgar Allen Poe’s sole novel from the perspective of an African-American. Just not enjoyable. The reinterpretation felt forced and heavy handed.

*5. The Odyssey by Homer: epic poetry, completed January 30, 2013

Of all the epics I have read, including Aeneid, Iliad, Divine Comedy, Beowulf and Digenes Akritas the Odyssey is the best. As a matter of fact, it is one of the ten best reads ever. Period.

6. Marco Polo, Discovery by John Larner: history, completed February 5, 2013

A somewhat specialized history of the era in which Polo traveled.

7. The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd: non-fiction, completed February 8, 2013

Lame. No center, no reason for this book to exist and little color. This surprised me because one of my favorite writers, Robert MacFarlane recommends it.

8. The Oresteia by Aeschylus: classic drama, completed February 8, 2013

Good stuff, but backstory and context are essential to the enjoyment of classical Greek drama.

Second Volume of Six9. Decline & Fall v. 1 by Edward Gibbon: history, completed February 15, 2013

The six volumes of this book deserve a post of their own and maybe someday they will get one. The first two volumes are some of the most well written narrative history of the collapse of Western Rome anyone is ever liable to encounter. Gibbon will remain the standard of excellence for a very long time to come.

That being said, it’s important to recall that Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is first and foremost an Enlightenment document, like our Constitution, John Locke, Rousseau and Voltaire. It’s filled to the brim with Enlightenment preconceptions and preoccupations. There is no textual context here. There are no examinations of how certain events of the past have been passed down to Gibbon and how their historical ‘reception’ remains unexamined by Gibbon. But that’s placing my own burdens and expectations and assumptions and preconceptions on Gibbon, which isn’t terribly fair, is it?

To this day Gibbon’s thesis on the Decline and Fall of Rome is misinterpreted by everyone and their mother, as well. Gibbon’s magnum opus covers a thousand years. And we still hear American pundits and academics who should know better talk about how America is “declining and falling like the Roman Empire!”

“Oh dear! I see chicken little!”

If they are correct then American power will be paramount for a long, long, long time.

I doubt that is the case, however, but I digress.

The final three volumes are excellent, but it’s clear Gibbon wasn’t interested in the Byzantines at all, nor did he think they had anything important to add to the Enlightenment project. Thankfully, contemporary Byzantine scholars, especially those at Dumbarton Oaks, see it differently.

10. Buddha by Karen Armstrong: biography, completed February 23, 2013

Oddly unenjoyable, which is saying something because Armstrong is a damned good writer.

11. Oedipus the King by Sophocles: classic drama, completed February 27, 2013

Good stuff, but backstory and context are so critical in the enjoyment of classical Greek drama. Yes, I said that already.

12. Fragments by Heraclitus: philosophy, completed March 4, 2013

You know who Heraclitus reminds me of? Lao Tzu. Seriously, had Heraclitus had a larger following with his short, gnomic utterances that are almost dualistic in nature, Western philosophy could have gone in a very different direction than it did. Pick up a copy of Stephen Mitchell’s Tao Te Ching and compare it with Heraclitus’ Fragments, translated by Brooks Haxton and you’ll see what I mean.

13. Jason and the Golden Fleece by Apollonius: epic poetry, completed March 9, 2013

Glad I read it, but it was clearly written by a third century BC academic for a third century BC academic audience. Way, way too many allusions and asides. Tried too hard to be Homer and instead, if it weren’t necessary to understand the subsequent tragedy of Medea, I doubt this would still be read.

*14. To Save Everything by Evgeny Morozov: criticism, completed March 10, 2013

Everyone should be compelled to read both of Morozov’s books. In 50 years people will be citing him, wondering why people didn’t listen to him. People will be citing him when they are desperately trying to unravel the totalitarian disasters they have sleepwalked into. Morozov single-handedly brings the word “ethics” back into our political discourse.

15. Decline & Fall v. 2 by Edward Gibbon: history, completed March 15, 2013

See #9

16. Decline & Fall v. 3 by Edward Gibbon: history, completed April 4, 2013

See #9

17. Great War For Civilization by Robert Fisk: history, completed April 7, 2013

The single best revisionist history of the Middle East over the last 40 years.

Greek18. On Politics v. 1 by Alan Ryan: history, completed April 10, 2013

I devoured this first volume but 100 pages into the second volume (which is, as yet, unfinished) I realized that a lot was being left out of Ryan’s history of political philosophy on purpose. There is an air of tired conventional wisdom about this book and I doubt I will complete volume two. Why? It is as if he writes about the inevitability of liberal-democratic capitalism. Apparently Fukuyama’s thesis is alive and well. Aren’t there any competing political philosophies out there? Or are we just stuck here, like Nietzsche’s “Last Man,” wallowing in the commodified consumer soullessness of post-modernity?

19. Decline & Fall v. 4 by Edward Gibbon: history, completed April 20, 2013

See #9

20. Eminence by Jean-Vincent Blanchard: history, completed April 25, 2013

A brief, and ultimately uninspired, biography of Cardinal Richelieu. Devoid of realpolitik or anything useful.

*21. Net Delusion by Evgeny Morozov: non-fiction, completed May 6, 2013

Everyone should be compelled to read both of Morozov’s books. In 50 years people will be citing him, wondering why people didn’t listen to him. People will be citing him when they are desperately trying to unravel the totalitarian disasters they have sleepwalked into. Morozov single-handedly brings back the word “ethics” into political discourse. Yes, I said this all before. It needs repeating.

22. Empires in Collision by GW Bowersock: history, completed May 8, 2013

Bowersock writes about the collision of Byzantium, Axum, the Arabian proto-state and the Jews of Yemen during the 5th-6th centuries. Fascinating and easy to read, but not for the beginner.

23. Decline & Fall v. 5 by Edward Gibbon: history, completed May 9, 2013

See #9

24. Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse: fiction, completed May 11, 2013

I did not like this book. I cannot explain why, but it was visceral, which means I need to read it again and explore my feelings towards it more.

25. Throne of Adulis by GW Bowersock: history, completed May 15, 2013

Bowersock writes about the collision of Byzantium, Axum, the Arabian proto-state and the Jews of Yemen during the 5th-6th centuries. Fascinating and easy to read, but not for the beginner. Yes, I wrote this above. Bowersock goes into more detail and explores the role of one specific massacre of Christians in Yemen by a Jewish kingdom and how it created a mess for the Byzantines and possibly got the ball rolling for religious reform in the Hejaz area. This is a good book for beginners interested in the religious ferment in the southern Arabian Peninsula in the century before the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) emerged.

26. Heraclius by Walter Kaegi: history, completed May 22, 2013

Damned good book on the life and history of Heraclius, one of the greatest of men to ever sit on the Romano-Byzantine throne. And also one of history’s most tragic figures. Someone really, really, really, needs to write a readable account of Heraclius’ life, especially in this age of Muslim-Christian tension and outright war at times.

27. Edessa, the Blessed City by JB Segal: history, completed May 25, 2013

A specialists study on the first Christian Kingdom. I got a great deal from it, especially since I have been to Edessa, now known as Sanliurfa.

28. Decline & Fall v. 6 by Edward Gibbon: history, completed June 2, 2013

See #9. Except to say this: I completed what few other people ever do, the entire text of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It was a huge task and took an enormous amount of time. It is something I am proud to say I have done.

29. Rome’s Wars in Parthia by Rose Mary Sheldon: history, completed June 5, 2013

A decent account of the conflicts between Parthia and Rome before the rise of the Sassanids.

30. Timarion by Unknown: drama, completed June 7, 2013

A very strange high-medieval Byzantine drama, not for beginners.

*31. The Devil in Silver by Victor Lavalle: fiction, completed June 8, 2013

I go to my Amazon Wish List and this book is at the top of the list. I buy it. I read it. This is Lavalle’s best book. I reviewed the book here, so go read that. I stand by it all. My favorite fiction book of the year.

32. The Crusades, vol 1 by Marshall W. Baldwin: history, completed June 19, 2013

Excellent supplemental material regarding the Crusades, which I specifically read for the Seljuk Turkish angle and the Zengids.

*33. Return of a King by William Dalrymple: history, completed June 24, 2013

Go buy the book and read it. The best history and the best readable account of the Anglo-Afghan war of 1839. Go buy the book. You will not regret it.

34. How to Write History by Lucian: classics, completed June 26, 2013

A shortish book written in early imperial Rome on the art of politically correct writing. Somethings are just timeless.

Bookshelf Porn









*35. The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark: history, completed July 6, 2013

Forget the “Guns of August” by Barbara Tuchman.

“The Sleepwalkers” is the history of the origins of World War One for our age. For any age. If you have any interest in how World War One began and why, this is the book to read.

Excellent in every possible way. My favorite non-fiction book of the year. 

*36. Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams: fiction, completed on July 12, 2013

A fun story about an angel who is also a private detective living in the Bay Area. I think they call this genre Urban Fantasy. If so, I’m a fan and looking forward to the follow up book.

37. Sandman Slim by Robert Kadrey: fiction, completed on July 23, 2013

Another book in the emerging Urban Fantasy genre. Fun and bloody and violent. Looking forward to the next installment.

38. Post Office by Charles Bukowski: fiction, completed July 24, 2013

“It began as a mistake.” That happens to be one of the best opening lines in any novel ever written. And Bukowski’s debut novel doesn’t disappoint.

39. In the Shadow of the Sword by Tom Holland: history, completed July 30, 2013

This book is Holland’s attempt (not quite successful, but not quite a failure) to unite all of Bowersock’s themes into one large book. Just how did Islam form? What role did Christianity play? Judaism? The Christian empire of Axum (Ethiopia) and the Jewish Kingdom of Yemen? And the Zoroastrian Persians? All played a part in the emergence of Islam and Holland tries to weave them all into one magnificent carpet. A slow read at times, but worth it for the many thought provoking passages it contains.

40. Later Travels by Cyriac of Ancona: belles lettres, completed August 2, 2013

One of the many i Tatti Library renaissance Latin translations. This one is of Cyriac as he wanders through the vestiges of the Byzantine Aegean in the last days of the empire. I reviewed it here.

*41. The Son by Phillip Meyer: fiction, completed August 5, 2013

The single greatest fictional treatment of Texas ever written, complete with an honest portrayal of the nasty race-war perpetrated by the Texas Rangers in the Nueces Strip during the early part of the 20th century.

42. The Long Earth by Baxter and Pratchett: fiction, completed August 9, 2013

A strange sci-fi book by one of my favorite science fiction writers (Baxter) teaming up with one of the greats of fantasy writing (Pratchett). It was a good book and I will read the sequel.

43. Chronicle of Pseudo-Joshua by Pseudo-Joshua: history, completed August 14, 2013

Terribly boring, poorly translated history of Edessa, also known as Sanliurfa. But good for my own research.

*44. Goodbye to a River by John Graves: non-fiction, completed August 15, 2013

The single greatest book about Texas ever written. I seem to read this book once a year now. Graves, the author, died on July 31, 2013: the same day I left my ex-wife. Some day I will write on the connection between this book and the dissolution of my relationship with The Brunette.

45. The Sun King by Nancy Mitford: history, completed August 21, 2013

I didn’t enjoy the book. Too gossipy and centered around court intrigue, not enough ‘big picture’ history to my liking.

46. Illusions of Postmodernism by Terry Eagleton: philosophy, completed August 25, 2013

A fairly dense and difficult read on post-modernism versus Eagleton’s own Marxism. As an intro to post-modernism it was terrible. But I persevered and read another book on it later in the year. I will probably return to Eagleton’s book in the next year.

47. The Mindful Writer by Dinty W. Moore: non-fiction, completed September 5, 2013

A kind of sappy, self-helpy, feel good about being a writer kind of book. It’s angle being for the Buddhist writer: mindfulness in all things. I needed a pep-talk, what can I say? I’d just left my ex-wife and was filled with self-doubt.

48. The Iliad by Homer: epic poetry, completed September 7, 2013

Gory. Long. Boring.

49. The History by Michael Attaleiates: history, completed September 9, 2013

If you are looking to read a first person account of the 1071 Battle of Manzikert this is the book. I’ve been to the battlefield, or at least what they believe is the place of battle. This book would have helped better picture what happened. I will probably cite this book when I get around to writing about Turkey in grad school.

Books50. 10 Billion by Stephen Emmott: non-fiction, completed September 14, 2013

Emmott is an imminent scientist and mathematician. This book discussed what will happen to the planet when we reach the population of ten billion. The last sentence of the book is this: “I think we’re fucked.”

51. Postmodernism by Jim Powell: philosophy, completed September 15, 2013

Need a non-biased intro explaining exactly what Post-Modernism is? Jim Powell’s book is the one to read.

52. Julian the Apostate by G.W. Bowersock: history, completed September 25, 2013

A brief history of Julian, the Roman emperor who tried to reverse Constantine’s decision to make the empire Christian. Gore Vidal in his novel romanticizes Julian. But Bowersock sticks to the facts. The character that emerges is a thin-skinned ass, who happens to be a pretty darn good general.

*53. The Whispering Muse by Sjon: fiction, completed October 5, 2013

Just go buy this short novel. One of the most delectable, tricky books I’ve read in a long time. It’s lovely. Trust me.

54. Complete Poems by C.P. Cavafy: poetry, completed October 6, 2013

Cavafy’s poetry is slipping into a cool river on a hot summer day and just floating under a clear blue sky.

55. Connemara, Last Pool by Tim Robinson: non-fiction, completed October 8, 2013

The deep, complete history of one small place. This is what Robinson does. This is volume two of a trilogy on Connemara. I’ve read volume one and also volume one of his history of the Aran Islands. If you like travel writing and history that stays in one place Robinson is for you. He covers it all: geology, botany, history, astronomy, politics and his prose is lovely.

Simulacra56. The Burning Land by Bernard Cornwell: fiction, completed October 11, 2013

Novel number four in a series about Alfred the Great of England. Historical fiction, blood, swords, vikings, pretty mindless but fun stuff.

57. Beowulf by Seamus Heaney: epic poetry, completed October 12, 2013

This was a fascinating poem, translated by a true world class pro. Worth reading twice.

58. Samarkand & Beyond by James Wellard: non-fiction, completed October 14, 2013

A strange book about desert caravans that I will probably cite in my graduate work.

*59. Season of Migration North by Tayeb Salih: fiction, completed October 16, 2013

One of the funniest novels I’ve read in a long time. A Sudanese writer’s answer to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which includes a long, frank discussion of female genital mutilation at a time when such a conversation in Arabic literature was taboo.

White Goddess60. Memory Palace by Lyndon & Moore: non-fiction, completed October 19, 2013

Great book on architecture, its purpose in the modern world, its influence and its practice.

61. Moravagine by Blaise Cendrars: fiction, completed October 20, 2013

Bizarre. The title literally means “Death by Vagina.”

*62. Bright-Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich: non-fiction, completed October 20, 2013

An essential counter-point to the bullshit American tendency to think positive about everything. Ehrenreich digs deep to show just how complicit corporate America is in this messaging and how it keeps people from forming unions and taking up other collective solutions, because after all, “how could it be someone else’s fault? I just wasn’t positive enough.” It’s about time someone called bullshit on the loathsome “power of positive thinking” and “prosperity gospel” industry. We need collective action in America, not individual’s pretending to be positive while they get laid off so their CEO can collect an extra five million bonus.

*63. The Blue Fox by Sjon: fiction, completed October 22, 2013

Another book by the Icelandic Sjon you must buy and read.

64. Mountain and Fathers by Joe Wilkins: non-fiction, completed October 24, 2013

A memoir about growing up in Montana’s “The Big Dry” without a father, a tough, loving mother and a grandfather much like Steinbeck’s Samuel Hamilton. Poetic and poignant, and well worth reading. But it will make you cry.

65. Dante’s Inferno by Mary Jo Bang: epic poetry, completed October 25, 2013

A contemporary translation of Dante’s Inferno that everyone should read in the next ten years because it’ll lose it’s charm pretty quickly due to the language she uses in the translation. But for 2013 it was delightful and very true to the spirit of Dante’s great work.

66. Lost Enlightenment by S. Frederick Starr: history, completed November 10, 2013

If you know anything at all about the intellectual climate of Medieval Islam then this is a book you must read. It’s a show-stopper. It’s revisionist in the best possible sense of the word. The years 800-1200AD in Central Asia made so very much of our modern math and science possible. Without the geniuses who inhabited places like Bukhara, Nishapur, Urgench, Samarkand and Merv we would not have the civilization we do. It’s really that simple.

The Bible and Bukowski67. Ride a Cockhorse by Raymond Kennedy: fiction, completed November 12, 2013

Imagine a woman with Sarah Palin’s flair for self-promotion, as horny as Linda Lovelace and as greedy as Jamie Dimon running a bank in small-town Massachusetts in 1985? Chaos ensues.

68. Mountains of Mind by R. MacFarlane: non-fiction, completed November 20, 2013

A book about how the human perception of mountains has changed over the centuries. Really well done, elegant writing and worth a read.

69. Ethics by Simon Blackburn: philosophy, completed November 24, 2013

Terrible book. It’s not even about ethics, but about morals. Doesn’t anyone understand the difference anymore? Or is that why our society is so fucked?

70. The Stalin Front by Gert Ledig: fiction, completed November 27, 2013

Gruesome depiction of two days in the life of two front-line soldiers: one German and one Soviet. The “All Quiet on the Western Front” of World War Two.

71. Postmodernism by Christopher Butler: philosophy, completed November 29, 2013

A decent book of criticism against post-modernism, although it’s labeled as an introduction to it. Again, I would start with Jim Powell’s book first.

*72. Winds West by Ray Lynn Saunders: fiction, completed December 3, 2013

A lovely coming of age story about a late 19th century woman living in the west on her terms. Worth reading.

73. The Gift by Hafiz: poetry, completed December 8, 2013

Sufi love poetry. That is all.

74. How to Live, Montaigne by S. Bakewell: history, completed December 8, 2013

Not such a good book. Why? It did not make me want to read Montaigne. It got great reviews, but for me, while interesting to learn about this era of French history and the Catholic-Protestant violence, there was some essence of Montaigne she must not have captured, because what little I have read by him is utterly absorbing.

*75. Tristes Tropiques by C. Levi-Strauss: anthropology, completed December 26, 2013

Had I read this book when I was 17 or 18 and trying to decide what to do with my life I would have become an anthropologist. It is that great of a book.


Now, what did you read this year?

Flinging Boogers During History Class

StudyI’m reading a book of historical criticism by Gordon S. Wood presently. I am enjoying it. He’s a cantankerous old fart who doesn’t approve of anyone’s version of history, not even his own. That’s the best type of historian if you ask me. Humility like that takes you a long way. But I digress.

I’m reading his book and came across this sentence about Turner’s “frontier thesis” on American history. You all know it—at least you should—how the frontier being open for so long was one thing that allowed America the space to create institutions of democracy and liberty. (I know, I know, just bear with me, okay?)

So I get to this sentence, “Although Turner’s particular “frontier thesis” has long since been modified or discredited, the general assumption of his interpretation—that American society can best be understood as a response to the circumstances of the New World—have remained very much alive through the twentieth century.”

And for some reason the rotund and orotund voice of Winston Churchill began a replay loop in my head, until I was reminded of a famous quip by him.

WinstonSo, he meets the then socialist prime minister in the men’s room of Parliament and backs way away at the other end of the long urinal and the PM says, “why so standoffish today Winston?”

Winston replies, “well, every time you see something big you want to nationalize it.”

Oh, wait, wrong anecdote. Sorry, I was thinking about the one (most likely apocryphal) when he is lambasted by an opponent of Jackie Fisher’s reforms to the Royal Navy.

Churchill’s opponent screeches his imprecation at Churchill across the hallowed chamber of the House of Commons in Parliament, “why, you’ll destroy the customs of the Royal Navy!”

“And what are those customs,” bellows Churchill in return, “I shall tell you in three words: rum, sodomy and the lash.”
Royal Navy
Indeed, I have always held the particular belief that America’s peculiar greatness came from three things: slavery, genocide and the Royal Navy.

Am I wrong?

First, African slaves built the New World, not Anglo-Saxons. Anglo-Saxons owned the Africans what built it. I don’t giving a flying single-horned white pony that farts rainbows what you think. I am right about this.

Second, Africans built the New World on land that was stolen from First Nations who were (in most cases knowingly) obliterated by disease that they had no defense against. This was done in the first case. Bartolome de Las Casas was writing about how the Spaniards were already doing this in 1542. That’s only fifty years after the “discovery.” And it was done in the last cases, too.

Now, to label this genocide is to commit an historical sin called anachronism, as the term didn’t exist until the early 1950s when Ralph Lemkin coined it. But so what: that’s what happened. Our ancestors—yes, yours and mine (unless you’re African American or of Native American ancestry) engaged in one of the, if not the, greatest genocidal run ever committed in history by killing off all the First Nations. Chief Pontiac, Purposefully Infected With Smallpox By American Settlers and British SoldiersTo add insult to injury the only ones left over were shuffled off on to the worst land in the entire nation imaginable: Oklahoma. After the Indians were gone white settlers brought their chattel slaves to do the heavy lifting of farming and such.

Finally, what protected this 125-50 year recurring cycle of events?

The British navy.

America was made great by slavery, genocide, rum, sodomy and the lash.

Glorious, ain’t it?


Annual Big Bend Country Pilgrimage

Every year for as long as I can remember, and insofar as I was living in the United States, I have made an annual pilgrimage to the Big Bend Country. My expectations earlier this year were to go with the same company I’d been with the last four years. Alas, life doesn’t quite work out as we expect, does it? The Window
So, this year I decided to take my favorite person in the whole world: I am taking my Mom.

It’s her first time. As a matter of fact, it’s the first time her and I have traveled together since we took my little sister to college in Princeton, New Jersey in 1990. The drive up there was tense, as my sister was ready to get away from us. But on the drive back, Mom and I meandered across America and American history, stopping in Monticello, Gettysburg and a couple of other interesting places, the highlight of which was the Blue Ridge Mountains Trace, a road that follows the peaks of the mountains. Just lovely. But that was a long time ago. Pronghorn Antelope

Mom’s a war horse and damn good traveler. She’s got 15-20 different countries under her belt and she’s going to Cuba in January, so she knows the rules of the road. I’m also looking forward to spending some quality time with her and learning more about her side of the family, mostly aristocratic Italians who fled Italy in the 1870s for Mexico. Classy folks, much unlike the heathen, drunken Irish on my father’s side. Santa Elena Canyon

I’m super excited to share my knowledge of West Texas with her: geology, Indian lore, birds, mammals, stories of cattle rustlers, cowboys and old Judge Roy Bean all make so good bullshit. And we all know I have an absolute profusion of that.

Face Facts

20131127-165735.jpgIt’s time for The West, or America at the very least, to face facts: our collective Enlightenment beliefs of universal justice and personal autonomy are threatened by the very forces they unleashed: technological progress.

Life is paradox.

Same as it ever was.

Public Service Announcement

To say or believe, “history is written by the winners,” is to buy (and accept and believe) the entire post-modernist critique of history. Just saying.

“En Texas, septiembre es el mes quema”

Drought Stricken Field Near Crystal CityI wrote this about the same time last year. And while I am technically two days early, nothing has changed. (Except everything.) Well, and maybe the light: it’s still a scorching, lifeless, dull, enervating gray summer light beating down on us. Perhaps I’ll wake up tomorrow morning and the shifting baseline of reality will have become perceptible. Probably not. You don’t notice a change in the light when you’re thinking about it.

Changed circumstances?


But the light, who pays attention to that? Fools and wanderers, that’s who.

Regardless, my Dantean torments will continue for a while longer. Summer isn’t officially over. Not until September 22 at 4:44PM Eastern Daylight Time.

Nineteen more days of heat like your face melting, dripping on the ground only to be incinerated by the heat of the earth and then blown away as ash by the blast furnace winds coming down from Oklahoma and Kansas.

September is the worst month in Texas because the anticipation hurts more than the reality that relief is so close, but like a man dying of thirst in the desert you can’t tell if its water or mirage until you are right up on top of it.

“En Texas, septiembre es el mes quema,” say the Mexicans.

In Texas, September is the burning month.

A Day In The Life of the Nueces Strip

LaredoIt was hot by the time I pulled out of Hotel La Posada in downtown Laredo, but it’s always hot on the first of September. I took several lefts and rights and meandered through the rigid grid of one-way streets and then hit IH-35 North, put the car in fifth gear and sped off, leaving Starbucks, Palenque Taco, Target and Wal-mart behind for other dangers, like wind-shearing massive rigs on the interstate and hidden DPS officers.

About twenty miles north of Laredo I veered of west onto Highway 83—a road I’d never traveled on. I’d decided earlier at breakfast while looking at my road atlas (I don’t use google maps) to take 83 north towards Catarina and then Carrizo Springs, Crystal City and then take the farm roads on further north to Highway 90 into San Antonio. This is an area of Texas I know little about and most of which I had never been before.

The stretch of land between the Rio Grande and the Nueces River was named the Wild Horse Desert by the early Dominican and Franciscan padres who noted the abundance of wild horses while traveling up the King’s Highway to the missions at Bexar and beyond into East Texas and Nacogdoches. Even in 1821 when a heartbroken Mexican lieutenant passed through he noted “vast herds” in his diary. And while there may be no wild horses left in the area it resembles a desert in ever way.

Harris' HawkAs I tear up the road north there is little to see except blue skies, the occasional cloud, and fields full of prickly-pear cactus, desert yaupon, leather stem, purple three awn, goatbush, ceniza, mesquite, tasajillo, huajillo and the occasional desert olive. Not a one is friendly and it’s been fairly said about this part of Texas many times, “if it don’t sting stick or bite it ain’t down there.”

The plains down here roll and so there are long stretches where you are climbing slowly up and hit the crest of a hill and then vast stretches of the desert spread out before you. The desert is splotchy here, like a dog with early onset mange, portions of it are white, like caliche dirt, and others filled with the shrubs and brushes and sticker-burr like-plants aforementioned. Usually, there isn’t much else. But today at one such crest I stopped and counted the natural gas flares: 18 with the bare eye. Had I a pair of binoculars it would have been more. Had it been night I imagine I’d have seen three dozen wells flaring off natural gas, just to get rid of it because its uneconomical to transport.

But what’s most bizarre to me was the feeling of being in the middle of no where—no gas stations, no homes, no ranches, not a hint of sound from oncoming cars—and see multiple huge industrial enterprises out there in the desert. In effect they’ve poked a straw down into the earth and are slurping out the last of the hydrocarbons. It’s the last energy boom we’ll ever see on the planet and I had a front row seat.

Catarina Hotel, ClosedA little while later I stopped in Catarina, a hamlet that has seen better days. I noted that the hotel here was built in 1926, at the tail end of the first great Texas oil boom. I wandered around the tight grid of streets and stumbled upon and old dance hall and hotel as well. Dilapidated and dangerous to walk through my curiosity got the best of me until a large Barn Owl in the rafters knocked some things about and scared the wits out of me as she swooped straight towards me and the exit. That was reason enough to leave Catarina for me. Besides, Barn Owls and I aren’t a good mix, but that’s a story for another day.

A few miles down the road I saw one of the new hotels for the oil field workers and took a photo. Each oil boom has left its own stamp on the region. The first one built places like the Catarina Hotel. The one in the fifties and sixties built small town Texas. And the present boom seems to be leaving nothing behind, except less water or poisoned water. It hasn’t done anything to improve life or business in Carrizo Springs, based on a quick glimpse of the dilapidated old town square.

I drive on past Carrizo into Crystal City. The landscape has changed now and so has the dirt. It’s no longer caliche but something approximating real dirt that can grow sustainable crops. There is a Del Monte plant in town. Big oil has given way to big ag, except when I cross over the Nueces River it’s empty. Ag has taken its portion, but you can be certain fracking has taken an equal if not larger amount. And I mean the river was bone dry. A few further miles down the farm to market road and I hit the Sabinal River. It too is bone dry for the same reason: drought, fracking and agriculture.

Fields are dust. Pecan orchards have died in the withering heat and drought, ongoing since at least 2009. One old boy had cotton, which as a crop is a notorious water hog, but it was a scrawny, mean looking yield he grew this year. And then I hit Highway 90, a road I know well, and made the dash home to San Antonio.
Natural Gas Flare, Outside Cotulla
I’m not real sure what I was looking for today, but after reading “The Son” by Philipp Meyer a few weeks back it was pretty clear that the family at the center of his book found its origins somewhere in the barren, cactus-filled landscape of the Wild Horse Desert. I had it in mind they were a Carrizo Springs family but after passing through Asherton, which is ten miles before Carrizo, and seeing Bel-Asher I’m inclined to think this might be where the family came from. It certainly fits geographically speaking.

Of course, that’s why we read—to learn new things, ideas, and to hear old stories told in a new way. Maybe sometimes those old stories take on a life of their own when you wake up in Laredo, looking out across the river to Mexico and decide to take a new road home. New books and new roads. Someone ought to write something about that.