Friday, January 3, 2014

Bookeywookey's bookish plans for 2014

After the look back at the past year (here and here) it is time to look ahead at some of the reading to come in 2014 (theoretically).

Nate Silver's 2012 The Signal and the Noise is a look at the application of statistics to everyday prediction making and how data is converted into knowledge.

Chrystia Freeland, a finance journalist, writes about the increasing gap between the rich and the poor. in the U.S., the consolidation of power into the hands of fewer and fewer persons across the globe, even as we continue to holler the word 'democracy' and try to sell it to the highest bidder. 

A companion piece to the above, Mark Mizruchi's book, argues that the influence of America's CEO's has changed since World War II from a consolidated force driven by civic responsibility to a fragmented group uninterested in using their power to tackle the "big issues." 

I'm really looking forward to Robert Page's synthesis of the work uncovering the genetic and physiological mechanisms which underlie bees' collective societies and how their social behavior evolved.

British social historian Theodore Zeldin wrote in 1994 about the forces that shape humanity in what is meant to be a ranging, unsentimental, and learned volume.

The thesis of Ian Buruma's latest, Year Zero, is that 1945 was the founding year of our modern era.  His narrative has a dual focus on world events and on the biography of his father, who was imprisoned by the Nazis, spending much of World War II in Berlin.

This book was a gift from a friend and colleague in celebration of the completion of my PhD.  I love it when a friend is willing to pick a book to give as a gift instead of giving a bookstore gift card.  Described as a  seductive love story, a satirical epic about the middle class, a comedy about the interior world of a cuckold,  like Joyce, Baron Munchhausen, and the Marx Brothers, this work, published in 1968, is now considered a classic.  I can't wait!

Alberto Moravia's Contempt was the basis of a Jean-Luc Goddard film.  It is rumored to be a "caustic dispatch from one man's self-made hell." While this isn't likely to be a laugh-riot, it is meant to be psychologically astute and an unflinching look at a failing marriage.

I was introduced to the writing of James Purdy when his collected stories came out in 2013.  I haven't actually decided which of his novels to read first, but this one about the dual forces of creativity and self-destructiveness in a mother and daughter is drawing me.  His prose is astonishingly plain and clear - Jo Ann Beard and Joan Didion both came to mind as I dipped into it, which is promising.

I have really enjoyed some of Kathryn Davis's strange, other-worldly novels, so I am hopeful about Duplex which apears to be part social examination of suburbia, part time-travel.  Hmmmm.

The winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize, The Luminaries, by New Zealander Eleanor Catton may be up next.  I am chomping at the bit to start this 800-page saga - part mystery, part 19th century nautical novel, part adventure, part ghost story. 

Ah, so many books, so many plans.  I wish you all a 2014 full of curiosity and wonder, fueled by good reading.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Bookeywookey's Favorite Books of 2013

The summing up of my reading for the year 2013 moves now from hard, cold statistics to content.  Here are my best of... lists.  Rather than post separately on each genre, since I didn't read as many books as in the past several years, I am going to collect my favorites reads of 2013 in one place.


I'll begin with the essay/memoir category.  Jo Ann Beard's The Boys of my Youth is superbly crafted.  She can write about anything, the pleasures here are in the writing itself.  As I said earlier in the year:
the book is full of one marvelous essay after another - about her poor father's drinking, about her mother and aunt fishing, about a terrible event Beard experienced while working at the University of Iowa.  Why should I care about this stranger's life, you may ask?  But her sentences lend the boredom, deep pleasures, longings, and misgivings of ordinary life true grace.  She fashions sentences so deft you want to live in them.


 Timothy Garton Ash's The File straddles the memoir and history categories.  This hybrid of forms is really what makes it so effective as a story of how individuals participate in history.  Garton Ash writes about his own time in East Berlin in the 1970s and about the subsequent reading of his own secret police file when the archives were made public after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  He visits each of the people who informed on him and tries to understand what about them and the facts of history led them to do so.


There were a number of novels this year that were solidly satisfying, each in their own way.  In no particular order they were.

Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch , many of my reading buddies were critical of Tartt's latest, particularly of its length.  I didn't have this problem with it. I found it an addictive saga, equal parts Gothic and Victorian, with more sophistication than her earlier novels, though no less entertaining. 

Days in the History of Silence - As the title suggests, this is a thoughtful, dark, interior book by Norwegian novelist Merethe Lindstrom.  A beautiful read about an elderly couple and their relationship to each other and to difficult events in their past.  

NW - I'm a big fan of Zadie Smith's multi-textured, urban, literary opus.  NW captures something essential about the social and economic zeitgeist of contemporary London.  She is an artist for our time whose work, I think, will last beyond it.

The Woman Upstairs Anger drives Claire Messud's latest book.  I love its depiction of the duality of the human psyche, and how the work of the artist and the work of being human interact. 
The trouble is that Nora needs others to tell her who she is.  She is not willing to reject their formulas, and that makes her angry as hell.  She's believed all this time that she's been mildly disappointed, but it takes meeting the Shahid family, particularly Sirena - a visual artist - someone seemingly free of these demands, to find out she's actually furious.

The Starboard Sea  - Amber Dermont's novel is the most promising debut I read this year. I found the prep school setting, the complex and sympathetic protagonist, and his search for moral compass enveloping and compelling.

Best read of 2013

Art Criticism/Fiction

Artful - If I had to choose my best book for 2013, it would not be a traditional novel, it wouldn't even be a traditional work of art criticism, but rather a wondrous piece of writing that uses the tools of fiction - character, plot, voice - as a vehicle for loving art, for translating the power of art upon an audience.
Artful is a masterpiece of integrity, and I mean that in all senses of the word.  Artful does not seem that it could be added to or subtracted from. It is consistent in its methods - its form (the subject, in fact, of its second chapter).  It is difficult while inside the whole to question these methods. Smith's narrator tells us she is mourning a lover.  Even as I am aware that Smith has created a narrative with craft and ingenuity, I believe that this must be true about Smith herself.  Finally, as Merriam Webster would have it, Artful is incorruptible. What I mean is that it brings its diverse pieces together so successfully that, well I was going to say that I am not aware of them, but that is not true. When I stop to consider the components of this book - form and content, reading and writing, painting and film, artist and art, lover and loved, mourner and mourned - my appreciation of the whole doesn't pause.  To consider the parts is to consider the whole.  

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Reading for the year 2013 - doing the numbers

I never ended up having time before 2013 ended to sum up.  I don't know what this does for the rest of you, but I always enjoy reviewing my year of reading by doing the bookkeeping.  This was the year in which I wrote and defended my doctoral dissertation, so I haven't read as much as in past years.  Let's see how it all turned out.

Number of books read: 44
By women/men: 17/27
Written in English/translated: 39/5
Irish: 1
Scottish: 2
English: 12
Aussie: 1
Turkish: 1
Norwegian: 1
Columbian: 1
French: 1
German: 1
Fiction/non-fiction: 35/9
Biography and memoir: 5