Continuing the tradition, here’s what I read last year:
It’s almost two separate stories: a romantic drama about a fragile relationship and a gripping adventure through a surreal world. Either of them would make a good novel in itself, but Murakami’s brilliance lies in how perfectly he weaves the two together. This is the kind of novel where half the fun comes from figuring out the connections and the twisted logic underlying it all (a feeling I also had reading House of Leaves last year). [thanks Lily]
Part sprawling epic novel, part meditation on the nature of history. Tolstoy gets inside his characters’ heads so well that by the end of the book, I felt like they were old friends. All throughout, and particularly in the “war” sections, he argues against the Great Man theory of history and proposes a bottom-up view of historical events. The resulting work is long and messy and arguably not even a “novel” at all, but at the same time it’s perfect for what it is. Isaac Babel said, “If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy,” and after reading War and Peace I couldn’t agree more. [thanks Asali]
This is certainly an unusual concept for a book. Half of it is Kapuściński’s account of his journeys through India, China, and Sudan as a bright-eyed young Polish correspondent. In parallel, he recounts stories from Herodotus’s histories that his journeys remind him of. It’s remarkable how believable the characters in his retellings are: in the end, perhaps we’re not so different from the ancient Persians and Greeks. [thanks Lily]
So, imagine “Flowers for Algernon” meets Moby-Dick. Now imagine it in a setting that’s halfway between Southern Gothic and Saunders-esque playful dystopia. And throw in surreal taxidermy, giant pigs, and Monsanto. Romie Futch is all this and more.
No book on this list has affected the way I think as profoundly as this collection of essays. The biggest takeaway for me was his idea that there cannot be one single ideal to strive for (“value pluralism”). He traces this idea through history, from Vico to Herder, and along the way he presents fresh perspectives on Machiavelli and Tolstoy. Other highlights include his portraits of his Russian contemporaries and his argument against “scientific history”.
I can’t believe that I hadn’t heard of Zweig before I got this book! These are 22 of the best short stories I’ve ever read, all set against a beautifully-written European landscape. The prose is gorgeous even in translation, and the characters display an immense amount of humanity. Highlights: “The Miracles of Life”, “The Governess”, “Compulsion”, “Fantastic Night”, “Mendel the Bibliophile”. [thanks dad]
In this book-length adaptation of his 2008 essay “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education”, Deresiewicz argues that the Ivy Leagues (and schools like them) are producing an educated elite out of touch with the rest of the country. He forms his argument from both a detailed historical account of the American education system and hundreds of firsthand accounts from students. Unfortunately, he doesn’t offer much in the way of solutions (aside from the usual clichés), but it’s a timely critique. [thanks Asali]
Okakura presents a passionate defense of what he calls “tea-ism”, the philosophy of reveling in the aesthetics of the simple things in life. The book itself is an aesthetic marvel. Every paragraph is beautifully written, all the more remarkable given that Okakura learned English late in life.
Corny title aside, the “for Beginners” series has been blowing me away with its intelligence and wit. I came in thinking of “postmodernism” as just a punchline, and now I’m ordering books by Baudrillard. Powell & Lee do a fantastic job of distilling key ideas of postmodern writers and artists and giving them context. [thanks Mel]
A fascinating novella about a group of bored Ukrainian physics students who start a geopolitical role-playing game, and the consequences that follow. Nikitin’s portrayal of Ukraine in the 80s and the 2000s is by turns bleak and satirical, reminding me somewhat of Dovlatov.
How do you make a play about somebody who spent her entire life in bed? Not the easiest premise to work with, but Sontag does a masterful job. There’s not really an overarching plot, but rather a series of vignettes, ranging from mundane family moments to a Lewis Carroll-esque tea party to a bizarre robbery scene. I would love to see a production of this play. I can only imagine what it looks like live.
I’ve been waiting for this translation for literally a decade. (Seriously, I was trying to translate it myself back in high school!) The premise is typical Strugatsky weirdness: a group of “volunteers” from throughout the 20th century find themselves in a city on an alien world for an “Experiment”. Challenges present themselves, some Lynchian (a mysterious red brick house travels around abducting citizens), others political (a fascist coup overthrows the government), all while a group of “Mentors” watch from the sidelines. This is the Strugatskys at their most political, challenging the Soviet experiment overtly rather than metaphorically, and it’s easy to see why it wasn’t published until after perestroika.
“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.” L’Étranger has a structure reminiscent of Crime and Punishment (part 1 is the crime, part 2 is the punishment), but unlike Raskolnikov, Meursault isn’t a philosopher. He doesn’t want to be the next Napoleon. He simply doesn’t care: not about his society, not about the people around him, not about the necessity of crying at his mother’s funeral. It’s not easy to convey Meursault’s perspective while still making him a sympathetic character, but Camus somehow accomplishes this.
Another book with a cheesy title that taught me much more than I expected. Frederick cleverly illustrates concepts such as positive/negative space, parti, and denial/reward. While the lessons are all nominally about architecture, a lot of the core concepts seem to be applicable to, for example, music, as well.
The most surprising part of reading Soul of a New Machine was how little things have changed since 1981. Kidder’s depiction of Data General employees, their frustrations and motivations, is spot-on my experience at medium-to-large startups. Some of the characters reminded me so much of former coworkers that it felt uncanny. The more technical passages are sometimes dull (Kidder wrote it for an audience that understood very little about computers), but it’s still a worthwhile read.
This is Le Guin at her least subtle. The characters tend to be one-dimensional and the plot doesn’t offer many surprises. But as a hard-hitting anti-colonial polemic, it certainly delivers. I especially enjoyed her exploration of the effects of communication and the depiction of dreaming among the Athsheans.
A surprisingly well-done graphic novel biography of Bernie Sanders. The section detailing the rise of the Democratic Leadership Council is a fascinating bit of history that I wasn’t aware of.
The first half is solid, full of that gentle yet piercing satire that I like in Saramago. The second half just seemed to drag on without ever reaching anything satisfactory.
A neat little noir tale transported into modern multicultural London. Neale’s levelheaded satire of the War on Terror is surprisingly prescient for 2005.
A comprehensive, if at times dry, look into Mao’s campaigns to eradicate schistosomiasis. Gross offers a nuanced portrayal of the responses of various classes of society to the campaign, challenging both Chinese and Western conventional narratives. [thanks Asali]
I’m not sure if this play was really necessary. It’s certainly fun to see this world again, but the plot is quite silly and the characters are (with a couple major exceptions) pretty weak.
A collection of pieces about the relationship between mathematics and stories. Some chapters are alright, but I didn’t feel like I really learned anything from it. [thanks Tikhon]