Here’s what I read last year:
This is exactly the kind of fun, eccentric modernist fiction that I love so much: a novel in dictionary form, with the entries telling a richly interlinked narrative spanning three time periods, loosely inspired by the 9th century mass conversion of the Khazar people. Magical realism with an emphasis on the “magical”, it’s all written in a dreamy, exuberantly fantastical voice, as though it were a fairy tale recounted by a really good storyteller.
A contemporary equivalent to those great Russian epics of the nineteenth century. The Patriots is a sprawling novel, zigzagging back and forth between Russia and America and between past and present, as it tells the tale of one family’s impossibly complex history. The narrative has its share of melodrama, but it doesn’t lose its sense of universality, and I felt that I came out of it with a newfound understanding of (and appreciation for) my own family.
Postman’s thesis that our ever-more-sophisticated entertainment industry is drugging society into helplessness doesn’t feel particularly novel, but he argues his point masterfully. Particularly intriguing was his exploration of the importance of rational argument in the Age of Reason (e.g. his comparison of the Lincoln-Douglas debates to political debate today). Postman doesn’t offer much in the way of concrete solutions, but this book is more timely than ever (and his analysis of Reagan as the “TV entertainer president” is eerily prescient…). [thanks Asali]
(A Wizard of Earthsea ★★★★, The Tombs of Atuan ★★★½, The Furthest Shore ★★★½)
I can’t believe I waited so long to start reading the Earthsea books! This is Fantasy at its best: a depiction of a truly unique world (not just Middle-Ages-plus-pointy-ears), used as a backdrop for an exploration of serious themes through a humanist lens, rather than a sequence of mindless violence.
A bold experiment in form, Pale Fire is a novel presented as a collection of lengthy, digressive annotations to a (fictional) epic poem. It’s also perhaps one of Nabokov’s most autobiographical works, in its own way – it’s hard not to see Nabokov himself in Kinbote, his refugee literature professor with a mysterious past. Though it’s odd, then, that Nabokov makes his protagonist so unsympathetic – ultimately, a deranged stalker. Still, the rich, opinionated narrative voice makes it a joy to read.
Schonberg attempts a doubly-impossible feat – to (1) compare how the great pianoforte players, from Mozart to Gould, have approached the art of piano playing, despite a lack of clear sources, and (2) to then explain his results in a readable way – and yet not only succeeds, but also in the process presents the lives of these pianists in such an engaging way that I’d say that anyone interested in music would appreciate this book.
DeLillo satirizes academia by making every character in White Noise, young and old, go through the novel as though they are an indifferent sociologist observing the world around them. The characters – a professor of “Hitler studies” and his family and colleagues – aren’t very relatable figures as a result, but it does make for a hilarious, incisive work, at least until it starts to lag due to the introduction of a more “conventional” (relatively speaking) plot line in the third act. , young and old, go through the novel as though they are an indifferent sociologist observing the world around them. The characters – a professor of “Hitler studies” and his family and colleagues – aren’t very relatable figures as a result, but it does make for a hilarious, incisive work, at least until it starts to lag due to the introduction of a more “conventional” (relatively speaking) plot line in the third act. [thanks Danielle]
Saramago does what he does best: present the smallest, most insignificant details in a character’s life in such a way that they seem as weighty and important as the actions of a classical hero. At the same time, he describes bureaucratic procedure so eloquently that the bureaucracy in question (a Central Registrar of records for an unnamed city) becomes a central character in its own right. A beautiful little novel hampered only by a clumsy, abrupt ending.
No doubt informed by DeWitt’s personal struggles, the stories contained in Some Trick are full of scathing tear-downs of artistic establishments of all sorts, be they publishers, galleries, tabloid journalists, or pompous academics. But the overarching theme is still a hopeful one: despite all the struggles and sacrifices, art will still go on, if only because artists simply can’t stop doing art. Highlights: “On the Town”, “The French Style of Mlle Matsumoto”.
Not my first time trying to read The Snail on the Slope, but the first time that I felt like I “got” it, no doubt thanks to Bormashenko’s excellent new translation. Boris later described this novel as a meditation on the conflict between humanity’s past, present, and future. It may be that, but it is also an excellent Kafkaesque tale alternating between two protagonists: one desperately trying to enter an enigmatic forest despite the objections of a faceless bureaucracy, and the other trying just as desperately to escape the forest.
I’m torn. i want to hate Gravity’s Rainbow because of the months of arduous reading that it took to get to the end of it – but how could I hate this book? It’s by turns hilarious and tragic, and so dense with allusions to everything under the sun that I feel like I understood half of it, at best, even so, the half that I did understand made it worthwhile. Despite its absurdity, it’s perhaps one of the most realistic fictional depictions of the military-industrial complex and the horrors of war. But I’m not sure. I’m still not done processing what I’ve read. [thanks dad]
If you still have any romantic preconceptions about the role of an artist today, this is the book to dispel them. Thornton masterfully weaves together interviews and observations of all the different interlocking circles underpinning the art world, from collectors to critics, to, finally, and almost as an afterthought, the artists themselves. I certainly can’t look at contemporary art the same way anymore. [thanks Emily]
Fun, fast-paced space noir in a richly crafted near-future universe with a cynical vibe. I couldn’t stop turning pages while reading it, but nonetheless I don’t feel a strong urge to read the sequels. [thanks Jacob]
There isn’t much English-language books out there on Taiwanese indigenous people, but fortunately this is a good one: a fascinating, meticulously-researched collection of essays on the topic of identity among indigenous tribes in the past and present. I was especially struck by Kai Yiu Chan’s essay tracing the history of plastic bead manufacturing and its effects on the social structure of the Paiwan and Rukai tribes.
A timely collection of powerful accounts of refugee experiences around the world, told from a wide variety of different perspectives, with tone ranging from defiant to heartbreaking. Highlights: “Guests of the Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa” by Lev Golinkin, “God’s Fate” by Aleksandar Hemon, “The Ungrateful Refugee” by Dina Nayeri. [thanks Asali]
A comprehensive, if dry, account of the history and theory of my favorite chamber music form.
At their best, these short comics provide a unique, intimate look at the realities of modern dating. But too many of them just devolve to cliché.
I had high hopes for Becker’s magnum opus tracing most human behavior to our innate fear of death. And it did start off strong with its exploration of the “immortality project” concept in the first few chapters (albeit working with an outdated view of mental illness). Then, for seemingly no reason, came some bizarre chapters attempting to psychoanalyze Freud himself, and the whole thing ended on a religious note that seemed rather a cop-out.
A pretty good character study of an aging musical ex-prodigy, inexplicably crossed with a ridiculous courtroom drama fearing embarrassingly dated portrayals of Zen Buddhism and a cringeworthy romance subplot.
An interesting attempt to explain special relativity entirely using geometric reasoning with spacetime diagrams, but it didn’t really work for me. Around halfway through it all started to fall apart and made me wish that I could see some equations for a change, rather than the fiendishly complicated diagrams that ensued. [thanks Greg]
The author spends six essays saying absolutely nothing of substance. Good English-language analysis of the Strugatsky brothers’ literature does exist (see, e.g. Istvan Csicsery-Ronay’s essays), but this ain’t it.