Saturday, December 31, 2011

My best fiction reads of 2011

Of the 40-odd works of fiction I read in 2011 I'm going to name some favorites. I'm still working on Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station, we'll see if I have time to finish it and write about it. This year, I won't break this group into further sub-genres as the representation of YA fantasy, classic literature, or short works are not significant enough. The original reviews are linked to each title, with an excerpt below. My favorite novels this past year were:

Friday, December 30, 2011

BIG books in 2012 - (The Tea & Books Reading Challenge)

For Birgit (and her hero C.S. Lewis) size matters, which is why she has posed the Tea & Books Reading Challenge, which demands that we tackle 2 or more books that are 700 pages in length or

Thursday, December 29, 2011

My best non-fiction reads of 2011

Now it is time for my annual best reads lists of 2011. I will choose from just two categories this year - fiction and non-fiction, beginning here with non-fiction. I read 25 works of non-fiction including the genres of memoir, science, and history/politics. I won't count re-reads, such as two works of Joan Didion's I revisited, as they were re-read because they are favorites. The original reviews are linked to each title, although I excerpt them below. The most memorable given these criteria were:

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Living in the World but in Exile from Almost Everyplace (Books - Open City by Teju Cole)

Teju Cole's Open City received strong responses from crack critics and fellow bloggers and made a number of Top 10 fiction lists for the year, persuading me to check it out. In it Julius, a Nigerian immigrant to America who is completing his final year of psychiatry residency at Columbia, walks the streets of New York City. Although the book is short, it does not invite quick reading. The emphasis is not on any sort of plot, but the novel seethes with ideas and scenes of humanity, otherworldly fantasy, and terrific tension.

The form of Open City is a flaneur's diary, only in the case of Julius, his strolls are not idle. He seems to be running from something. Coles's evocation of the

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Taking on the Double-Dare

Hope you have had a happy holiday - whatever you like celebrating - christmas, chanukah, kwanza, the winter solstice. Now enough singing songs, snacking, toasts, and boardgames, let's get down to the business of reading. C.B. has double-dared us to read only from the TBR pile from December 31, 2011 until April 1,

Friday, December 23, 2011

2011 - A little end of the year accounting...

In preparation for my soon-to-come best-of lists, I always like to do a little end of the year accounting. I know some people find this ludicrous but I love looking back on the year and categorizing what I have read. I have been aiming for an average of one book per week, which has been a stretch in the past three years with my class reading requirements, however this fall I no longer had classes. The result was that I was able to finish a few more books. Even though I plan to read several more books this year, lets see how the numbers look so far.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A monument to hope in the midst of the apocalypse (Books - The Road by Cormac McCarthy)

It took me two years to work up to reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road after a friend recommended it. I just wasn't craving post-apocalyptic winter. The anticipatory cloud lifted one day and I no longer felt that I would not be able to appreciate the writing or story for the setting. This little personal anecdote befits the book, having now read it, as it is about our worst fears realized. The father and son who are the book's main characters live isolated in a cold, damp scab of a world where there is little sustenance, the other beings are few and impossible to predict, but usually violent, and where the only rule is to survive. But, my gosh, the writing is enveloping to the point of blotting almost all else out, the love between the two characters is deeply moving, and the impression this novel left is indelible.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Revolutionary Improvisation in the Theatre of East Central Europe and Vaclav Havel Remembered (Books - The Magic Lantern by Timothy Garton Ash)

Amidst daily skirmishes between 'the people' and the armed forces in Egypt, a stunning year of uprising by the people throughout the Middle East including an overthrowing of Gaddafi regime in Libya, and weeks of somewhat more amorphous protests in cities in the U.S., a beacon of such revolutions has died - Czech playwright Vaclav Havel, one of the leaders of the mostly peaceful revolution of 1989 that broke the hold of the Soviet Union on Central Europe. He was a shy man, and so an unlikely revolutionary hero. But, as Timothy Garton Ash's The Magic Lantern, a collection of essays written during the 1989 uprisings in Poland, Hungary, Germany, and Czechoslovakia, makes clear, these were civil uprisings lead by intellectuals and so he became one of the key men of these world changing events.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Ugly Betty meets Serpico in a parody of a mockery of justice (Books - From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant by Alex Gilvarry)

On the last day of American military presence in Iraq, it's appropriate that I should have just finished From the Memoirs of a non-Enemy Combatant an incisive satire, part-political part-social, and the first novel of Alex Gilvarry. Viking sent me a copy in advance of its January release, thanks Viking.

The first level of this novel I was struck by was the narrative voice Gilvarry lends his lead character Boy Hernandez - it is queeny, misquoting Dostoyevsky one minute and Coco Chanel the next. One could say it is over dramatic, were it not for the overly dramatic circumstances Boy finds himself in. This is a voice ready-made for a one man show in a downtown club.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Seeking freedom on multiple levels (Books - The Free World by David Bezmozgis)

The Free World, David Bezmozgis's novel about the immigration of a Jewish family from Soviet-governed Latvia to the West in the 1970s, has made a few of this year's top ten lists. Although I found much in it to interest me, it isn't quite making mine. The Krasnansky family consists of Alec, his brother Karl, their parents, wives, and Karl's children. They come to Rome - which serves as the purgatory between their old lives (Soviet, Jewish, a world where they have possessed some power, some property, and some sense of themselves) and their new (Italian, Catholic, a world of poverty and uncertainty). Here they wait to find out which country will grant them a visa - their hope of salvation. This novel is about the aspiration to be free in both a political sense and a personal one. Even as Alec and the other characters aspire to escape Soviet economic oppression and anti-Semitism, they find they cannot be free of themselves. The abstract realm of this paradox is created smartly and on multiple levels however the tension that sustains a drama, the kind one can feel, remained a distant idea.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A history of volatile Central Europe where the political is the personal (Books - The Ghosts of Europe by Anna Porter)

Anna Porter's The Ghosts of Europe relates the history of a rapidly changing region - Central Europe - that is Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. She focuses on the twenty years since the 1989 revolution which concluded in the fall of the Soviet empire, but necessarily informs this discussion with a good deal of context, including how these countries and their people were impacted by World War II, as this was so much the making of the region, and sometimes reaching back further to include the influences of the Ottoman or Hapsburg Empires. Though informative, her approach makes no pretense at a broad or objective text bookish approach. Her question is focused and it motivation is personal.
In 2006, I set out to discover whether democracy had taken root behind the Iron Curtain. I chose Central Europe because this part of the world had been the dividing space between East and West, or, as Stalin and Churchill deemed, between spheres of conflicting influence. My second reason is that I am a Central European.