Monday, December 31, 2012

Rediscovering art in suffering, rediscovering language in silence (Books - The Life of an Unknown Man by Andrei Makine)

Barely a few pages into Andrei Makine's The Life of an Unknown Man (Trans. Geoffrey Strachan, Graywolf Press, 2012), I had a feeling it was going to become a favorite novel of 2012.  It is a literate paean to the life of a simple man, made memorable by his fierce and determined love.  It begins in Paris as Shutov, an emigre Russian writer, mourns a break-up with a much younger woman.  He mouths appreciation for Chekhov that is learned, indeed he speaks on television as a member of literary panel of experts, yet in his appraisal he is distant, formulaic, and, as one ambitious for a different kind of success, he is soured by fear of his own mediocrity. He is a man caught in between - in between old age and youth, in between success and ordinariness, in between the refined, educated life of a Frenchman-of-letters and a victim of the Soviet repression of anything humanistic or beautiful.
I'm not Russian, Lea.  I'm Soviet.  So you see I'm filthy, stupid, and vicious.  Very different from all those Michel Strogoffs and Prince Myshkins the French are crazy about.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Bookeywookey's best fiction reads of 2012

And now, my favorite fiction reads of the year (excluding re-reads which are obviously already favorites).

Toby's Room by Pat Barker
The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St Aubyn
Any Human Heart by William Boyd
What is the What by Dave Eggers
The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst
Be Near Me by Andrew O'Hagan
Nineteen-Seventy-Four by David Peace
The Life of an Unknown Man by Andrei Makine

I enjoyed looking over all the fiction I read this year.  The worlds I inhabited thanks to the authors were so varied, full of strong characters, sharp observations, and the narrative technique, particularly in this short list, was sure.  I'm not sure whether I am going to end up wanting to add Andrei Makine's The Life of an Unknown Man to the list of contenders (addendum: see above) , as I'm in the middle of it now, but here are the four, upon looking back, that I think the best of the best. Click the titles for links to my posts about them.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Bookeywookey's best biography and memoir reading of 2012

There is a blizzard headed our way here in the wilds of Ohio and I brought no boots.  Great!  I guess I will return to my end-of-year list-making. 

I noticed that I returned to a reading pleasure of old this year.  I used to read many more biographies and autobiographies than I have in the past few years (especially when I was acting), but in 2012 I read many more. Here were the highlights.

Catherine the Great by Robert Massie
Blue Nights by Joan Didion
A Positively Final Appearance by Alec Guinness
My Name Escapes Me by Alec Guinness
Winter Journal by Paul Auster

It is difficult to pick a 'best' from this list since the straight, long-form biography of the empress of Russia is so different from the memoir form, which is different again from Joan Didion's deep elegiac reflection on the loss of her daughter.  Good thing I don't have to choose.  These were all great, but I'll single out:

Monday, December 24, 2012

Bookeywookey's best non-fiction (non-biographical) read of 2012

Time for the annual best-of ritual.  I'm dividing my non-fiction category into life story forms (biography, memoir) and anything else.  Here were the non-biographical non-fiction highlights of my 2012 reading:

The Emperor of all Maladies by  Siddhartha Mukherjee 
Remarkable Creatures by Sean B. Carroll
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
In Europe by Geert Mak

There isn't a single title in this list that I wouldn't strongly recommend.  Since The Emperor of all Maladies and Behind the Beautiful Forevers got a lot of air time from others, I think I'll call it a tie between In Europe and Remarkable Creatures.  I found In Europe impressive for combining tremendous scope - covering all of Europe and the 20th Century - with a sense of the impact of history on individual human beings.  Remarkable Creatures makes an adventure story out of a narrative that shows how science done by individual mavericks contributes to the fund of general knowledge.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

2012 reading roundup - let's do the numbers

I feel a little behind in my accounting.  I always enjoy my annual review of where my reading tastes took me over the year.  So, let's see what kind of reading year I had in 2012.

I have completed 60 books to date, writing about 58 of them.  I have a few more in-progress and am likely to finish 1 or 2.  Genre categories are not mutually exclusive.  If a book falls into more than 1 category, I list it in both.

Books read: 60
written by men: 44
written by women: 16
in translation: 5
re-read: 2
published in the past year or so: 19
fiction: 31
non-fiction: 28
on the fence: 1
poetry: 1
biography/autobiography/memoir: 9
history/political affairs/social science:  9
science: 9

I'm a little surprised I got through so much, but I'm conscious as I'm beginning to write my dissertation, that next year's numbers are likely to be a lot more modest.  Not that I won't be reading, it will be many more science articles next year and many fewer books. Or at least, that's what I expect.

Next up: my best-of lists for 2012.

Happy holidays everyone.

English innocence in Weimar Germany (Books - The Temple by Stephen Spender)

Oxford poets, Weimar Germany, you'd think that I would have enjoyed Stephen Spender's The Temple a little more.  Spender wrote it in 1929-1930 at the age of 21, so it has all of the enthusiasm of that tender age.  It was never published, I suppose, because it would have outed a few too many of his acquaintances and he feared action for libel.  Spender rewrote it in 1986, updating it with clunky self-conscious awareness of the impending war that deprives the narrator of what I suspect was too embarrassing a show of political naivete.  To my reading, this stripped what is already a work of patent juvenilia of most of its charm.  What remains pscyhologically astute and historically interesting is the certainty of the young characters that Germany was in a revolutionary time of enlightened openness, that there would never be another war, and among the most educated of the characters, many of whom were Jewish or homosexual, a conspicuous blindness to the threat of the rising Nazi party.  That observation and a good deal of decent descriptive writing kept me going. 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

An unforgiving island and a story woven to pass the time (Books - San Miguel by T.C. Boyle)

San Miguel was the first novel I have read of the 13 of T. C. Boyle and I found him a vivid writer who really knows how to tell a good story.  This tale of three generations from the 1880s to the 1940s who inhabit an unforgiving island off the coast of Southern California was free of Boyle's reputed whimsy.  I was going to say that this is a sober tale about the borderline between grit and stubbornness, and it is sober, but unlike many modern novels that put forth a unifying theme, this is a novel that is about what it is about.  The damp, ramshackle ranch where the Waters and then the Lester families live is not a symbol, it's a dwelling.
Her first impression was of nakedness, naked walls struck with penurious little windows, a yard of windblown sand giving onto an infinite vista of sheep-ravaged scrub that radiated out from it in every direction and not a tree or shrub or scap of ivy in sight.  There was nothing even remotely quaint or cozy about it.  It might as well have been lifted up in a tornado and set down in the middle of the Arabian Desert.  And where were the camels?  The women in burnooses?  She was so disappointed - stunned, shocked - that she was scarcely aware of the boy as he pushed open the rude gate for her.  "You want I should put the things in the parlor?"  he asked.
The characters did not, as the book's jacket suggest, read like examples of strength, they are simply people, very flawed people who could be petty, who could give up, who could be jealous, overly ambitious, loving, and, yes, determined. The advantage of this was that they were unpredictable.  I felt like I was spying on these people in their lives, that if they turned around and saw me they would feel interrupted and self-conscious.  Without a theme to give the reading a unifying purpose, the job of Boyle's narrative was to keep me interested in the place and the characters and it is his talent that he does.  This felt like old fashioned storytelling - not a narrative to sell an idea but a story woven to pass the time, to entertain, to hold the reader's interest.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Voluptuary and statesman (Books - Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie)

Literature, theatre, and neuroscience are the fascinations I profess in the tagline to this blog, but while my enthusiasm for fiction and science are evident in my reading choices, and my interest in how narratives build selves shows up again and again in my writing, I think of my interest in Central and Eastern European history as a kind of secret pleasure - one I share with my dear friend Sheila (although I haven't read nearly the amount she has on the subject).  We met for an evening of red wine and talk this past week and she saw Robert Massie's Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman (625 pages. Random House, 2011 ) poking its massive head out of my briefcase and laughed knowingly.  Many a time is it that we have met over the last twenty years when the second to arrive finds the first at the bar, red wine already in-progress, nose buried in a 900 page tome about the purges of Stalin, or the velvet revolution.  In any event, the truth now out on the table, I can confess to not merely enjoying Massie's biography of Catherine II, and learning a ton about 18th century European history - not just of Russia but also Poland and Austria-Hungary, and he does a great one-chapter mini-review of the French Revolution - but also to having done some much-needed work on my biceps, triceps, and lats, lugging the 4 lbs of its heft back and forth to work every day.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

World War I and the changing roles of women and men (Books - Toby's Room by Pat Barker)

World War I was one of the most influential events of the last century.  Some credit it with ushering in the modern war, the machine age, the birth of the airplane for regular human use, modern music, the spread of modern clinical psychology, and the death of chivalry.  Certainly it heralded the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, German, and Russian monarchies. Killed 8-9 million soldiers, disabled 7 million, and seriously injured 15 million. Germany lost 15% of its adult males, Austria–Hungary 17%, and France 10%.  Another several million civilians starved to death in its wake.  It is little wonder that artists have spent so much time contemplating its devastating reach.  English novelist Pat Barker has made the subject of World War I her literary bread and butter.  Her Regeneration Trilogy fictionalized Siegfried Sassoon's treatment for shell-shock after serving in World War I.  It dramatizes socio-political as well as clinical-scientific complexities of the war experience in a way that makes you feel as thought you were present then.  It's a strong and memorable read.  Her Life Class looked at making art in the context of war and the changes experienced by one young English woman as a consequence.  Pat Barker's latest, Toby's Room, like Life Class, deals with a young painting student named Elinor and her contemporaries, Neville and Paul.  I found it a richer exploration than her last novel of the changes wrought on the younger generation in the wake of the war.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Justice does not banish loss (Books - Berlin Cantata by Jeffrey Lewis)

Berlin, a mecca of culture and progressive thought in the 1920s, cleared of much of its talent by the Nazis,then destroyed like most German cities by the war, then divided as a spoil of war, half-Communist half-Western, then - 1989 - the wall falls. In this city: a house owned by a Jewish family, then Nazis, then Communists.  To that city on the verge of change comes an American woman, the next generation of the Jewish owners of the house.  Germany's efforts to make reparations to those they harmed in the war mean that she might be able to lay claim to the house.  In Berlin Cantata (Haus, 2012), Jeffrey Lewis tells the story of modern Berlin - a city where the layers of history are exposed, where the past walks on two feet, seemingly as alive as the present.  A city of ghosts.  Lewis tells this story of memory, guilt, politics, and family as a melange of solo voices.  The house's former owners, its current residents, the young woman's lawyer, a contemporary journalist speak their monologues as the story accumulates and the mysteries of the past unfold.