I don’t often make New Year’s resolutions, but this year I did– that I’d complete a book a week, comment on it on the blog, and make the readings a mix of fiction and non-fiction.
Week 1: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.
Franzen’s book was fairly disappointing. The primary characters are moderately dislikable without ever being that interesting, and don’t quite come alive for me. He also doesn’t quite convince about one of the big plot engines (a scandal involving a conservation group) and, toward the end, has to kill off a semi-major character in order to tie the plot up. I went back and re-read the NYTimes review (they featured it as among the ten best of the year) and still don’t fully understand what the reviewer loved about it. I will say that I did hang with it for over 500 pages, that the plot drove in ways that made me hang with it to see how it turned out, and that it was cleanly if not excitingly written. Folks I greatly respect liked it a lot better than I did, but there you go.
The thread the week I read this book was here.
Week 2: The Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon
The language in The Lord of Misrule caught my attention immediately when I picked it up in the bookstore. The couple of quotes I featured on the blog give a sense of it. The book is four interconnected stories set around specific racehorses and races involving them, all at a seedy, dishonest track in West Virginia. All but the last race are “claims” races, where the owner puts up his or her horse for a set price while racing it– anyone willing to pay the price can walk away with the horse.
The writing stays vivid throughout, and the stories build up to a nice explosion at the end, although it’s the first one that’s the most compelling. I like that this book won the National Book award so unexpectedly, although I wonder if it will be as memorable as The Moviegoer, Invisible Man, or Faulkner’s Collected Stories decades from now.
Week 3: Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded The World by John Szwed
This is a fascinating biography of an essential, controversial figure of 20th Century American music. I don’t entirely buy the author’s point of view, but still end up recommending it.
Week 4: Dean Faulkner Wells’s Every Day By The Sun.
I read this in galleys, noting it here, with a promise of more comment when the publication date approached in March.
Week 5: Harold McGee, Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Foods and Recipes
This book and work both combined to put this resolution in serious jeopardy. I’m playing catch-up now, and hope to catch up on comments about the books sometime soon. I noted something from the book as I was reading it.
Week 6: Allen Shawn, Twins
This book is an interesting memoir of growing up with an autistic twin, written Allen Shawn, who is also the brother of playwright/actor Wallace Shawn and the son of long-time New Yorker editor William Shawn.
Week 7: American Uprising by Daniel Rasmussen
This was by far my least favorite to date. I explained why in a long post.
Week 8: Information by James Glieck
Fascinating at the start, less so about 3/4ths in, this is a history of information theory. The story of Claude Shannon, the Bell Labs / MIT scientist who invented the term and even the idea of making electronic circuits using Boolean logic (thus inventing computer programming in the 30s, before computers existed) is the heart of the book, with excellent sidelines into talking drums, Babbage’s machine, telegraphy, and much else. He’s not so good at explaining quantum mechanics and the idea of a quantum computer, but still well worth a read.
Week 9: Go Down Moses by William Faulkner
I re-read this as a prelude to reading last year’s book about Faulkner’s sources for “The Bear” from Marshall County plantation records. I had not read it in order the first time– I read “The Bear,” and then later came up and picked up the stories– and thereby missed interconnections that are really clear when all read freshly together, particularly from “The Fire in the Hearth.” ”Was” is a far better an funnier story than I remember. Altogether a rewarding re-read.
Week 10: Ideas in Food by Aki Kamozawa & H. Alexander Talbot
Perhaps I’m reading this as my consolation prize since I’m not going to read Modernist Cuisine. A book about food science by writers from the excellent Ideas in Food blog.
Weeks 11 and 12: ??
I write this on March 25th, and should have gone through 12 by now. I will be playing catch-up well into May, I think.
A combination of work and other issues screwed up posting about, and, to an extent, keeping up. I’m going to list books here and try to make notes later. As a quick observation: The Lincoln book is a great way to work through his thinking, the changing views toward slavery from the 1820s on, and Lincoln’s political life.; Liebling always deserves a re-read, and there’s none better than his Earl Long book; and Ronson’s book is hilarious and compulsive reading, at least as good as Them and much better than his second book.
Ledgers of History: William Faulkner an Almost Forgotten Friendship, and an Antebellum Diary by Sally Wolff. I would not have finished this book except that the Faulkner history was important to me, I was curious if the author could make her thesis about the sources for “The Bear” work, and I ended up intrigued with material about early 20th century plantation life. Completely unconvincing on the parts of its thesis that got national attention, but with interesting data elsewhere– I came away convinced that this family was a major source for a lot of specific events in The Unvanquished, but not “The Bear.” Oh well, they were sources for a lesser work and not a masterpiece. I can’t recommend this book at all, but if you are interested in the topic, you might want to check it out. Both wrong-headed and boring.
Three Cups of Deceit by Jon Krakauer. Krakauer is interesting about anything he sets his mind to write (previous books include Into Thin Air and Into the Wild, both brilliant). This one is about a charity he supported, supposedly building schools in Pakistan and Afganistan. He has his knife out, and sticks it very deeply where it deserves to go. A short, nasty bit of revenge.
The Earl of Louisiana by A.J. Liebling. A re-read (this and Go Down Moses). One of the greatest books about Southern politics, and without doubt the funniest. I would give a minor digit to have been able to sit at Galatoires and hear Liebling soak up Louisiana politics of that era.
The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery by Eric Foner. A brilliant approach to this topic, giving me insight into Lincoln and the development of abolitionism in that era. It presents the evolving thinking of a great politician who tied his political beliefs to a moral and constitutional system. In a couple of ways he held on to beliefs we’d wish he’d abandoned– colonialization in particular. A great book, but not an easy read. Every southerner should be made to read this book and understand what that war and that era was about.
The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson. Not quite as good as Them (his first book) but better than The Men Who Stared At Goats (his second). A very funny quick read. If you are interested in the misuse of the idea of psychopathy in criminal cases, essential pop reading. Worthwhile alone for his attempts to find psychopaths in the business community.
Grand Pursuit by Sylvia Nasar. A major disappointment. She’d written very fine biography of John Nash, that gave you a sense of the ideas behind a major part of game theory, and at the same time provided a fascinating portrait of a genius suffering from schizophrenia. This time, she seems almost to be re-doing The Wordly Philsophers, without enough explanations of the ideas to pull it off. Instead of intellectual history, it’s like reading the departmental gossip of the economics profession; she has to say something about the ideas to keep the thread going, but not enough for you to really understand them.
At Elizabeth David’s Table: Classic Recipes and Timeless Kitchen Wisdom
Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World by Michael Lewis. Better as magazine pieces– it doesn’t quite add up– and not nearly as compelling as The Big Short. This one is more-or-less “The Big Short Goes International,” with Lewis visiting Iceland, Greece, Ireland, and Germany, while writing about how government debt is going to destroy Europe. There’s a bit too much broad-brush characterizing by nationality (I got tired of the long riff on Germans being on surface all about being very clean while really being obsessed with crap). Breezy and mild fun as the least of Lewis’s stuff will be but not profound.
Before the Revolution by Daniel Richter. A really fascinating history of what is now the United States from roughly the Late Medieval Ages (both here and in Europe) through right after the ending of the French and Indian War. It is a big book that, like The Fiery Trial, took more time than my resolution allotted for it, but also well worth it.
The Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks. This opens really strongly, because Banks has a really interesting main character in context he has fully imagined: A 22 year old virgin who has lived totally inside his head who finds himself branded a sex offender and living under a bridge outside a city so obviously based on Miami the fictionalization doesn’t quite work. The plot gets intruded upon by a sociology professor who is beginning to end a construct; I know the bullet points establishing who he is but thats about it. One oddiment: The professor leaves “Miami” during a hurricane to see his parents in a nursing home outside Tuscaloosa, then drives back, the whole time somehow within the same hurricane, which slams the under-the-bridge community upon the prof’s return. Basically, this plays out after about a third into it, once you get the premise.
Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics by Nicholas Wapshott. I had hoped this would tell more of the history of the ideas than Grand Pursuit, which covers much of the same ground. It does, but in the end, not very well. The first third or so, which focuses on the backgrounds of both primary figures, is pretty good, although occasionally sloppily written (the whole book is in a breezy, almost colloquial style that stumbles occasionally). Describing Keynes’s buildup to his masterpiece of the thirties, General Theory, Wapshott does set up an intense rivalry. But Hayek didn’t hold up his end; he lost nerve in responding to Keynes. He survived much longer, and his contributions to the rise of libertarianism make an interest story Wapshott almost covers adequately. The worst thing about the book is that, from the halfway point, the author so desperately wants Hayek to win or at least score major points against Keynes, and he really shows it.
Five Chiefs: A Supreme Court Memoir by John Paul Stevens. Retired Justice Stevens writes a history of the five chief justices during his career, with some history of the prior ones. It gives him a frame for a history of his time on the court, and is an inside look that anyone interested in the Supreme Court would find interesting. It is very much written for the general reader– he explains terms like “distinguished” and in an almost too straightforward style.
A Treasury of Damon Runyon (Modern Library). I picked up this collection at a used book store and have enjoyed the language a great deal (enough to quote it on the blog). It’s interesting to see a take about 20-30 years earlier on the milieu of A.J. Liebling’s Telephone Booth Indians. There are ways it is also the same world depicted even later in “Broadway Danny Rose.”
Twenty-three is hardly a book a week. For next year, I think I will shoot for beating this number by 10 and staying all the way through at an every-other-week pace.
Several books somewhat slowed me down. The Foner book about Lincoln, while well written, has a lot of material and is somewhat slow going. The Wolff book about Faulkner is grueling, and I would not have stayed with it but for my interest in the topic.