I read a few more books in 2012 than the year before, and started posting more consistently to Goodreads; you can follow me there if you like. Most of these books are fairly current; where they’re not, I’ve indicated year of publication.
The Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers. Almost relentlessly good writing, sometimes great, very occasionally over the top. Horror and response to horror minutely and beautifully observed and reconsidered, and again. “The details of the world in which we live are always secondary to the fact that we must live in them.” There’s a continuous passage—pages 144-146 of the Little, Brown hardcover—that is as powerful as anything I’ve recently read, and as far as I know or now feel, an accurate accounting of these Arab wars or any war; or at very least something very affecting was got into me by the author.
This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Díaz. Economy and energy. Almost a novella. Brilliant stuff. Given an extra dimension for me by the reading he gave at the Vancouver Writers Festival this year: perhaps the most gracious and keenly intelligent writer I’ve heard.
Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson (1992). Mentioned by Junot Díaz in a recent New York Times interview. Absolutely brilliant. Almost every sentence a revelation. Read it. I picked up “Train Dreams” (below) on the strength of this.
Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe (1958). A ripping yarn. And yet, I kept hoping that the women, outcasts, and slaves (!) of Umuofia would rise up. Ultimately, it’s the tale of one idiotic set of beliefs replacing another. I know, it’s a story, but it’s not simply presented as such. I feel about as little sympathy for Okonkwo as I do for the missionaries who destroy the Africans’ “way of life” (not that they had any right to, of course)—which is defined and enforced by a ruthless circle of brutal men.
Lionel Asbo: State of England, Martin Amis. One is left wondering, “What’s the point?” A good yarn, but so what? I have to go back and read something like “Money,” I suppose. I enjoyed “House of Meetings“—completely different tone.
Ancient Light, John Banville. Some great writing—it starts strong—some middling. Someone else on Goodreads pointed out similarities to Barnes‘ “The Sense of an Ending,” but this is not quite of the same quality. Very enjoyable though, particularly around the vagueness of (all sorts of) memory. The slight twist at the end reinforces the overall message of the unreliability of not just memory, but perception—of places, events, and in particular people, those closest to us. Perhaps not as understandable to someone not yet in middle age. I may read more of him—I understand this is the third book of a trilogy.
Pulse, Julian Barnes. I loved “The Sense of an Ending” last year so picked this up. A solid collection of short stories. I liked those in “One” better than the perhaps more adventurous “Two,” but all were good. The “At Phil & Joanna’s” series was entertaining and funny.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon (2000). A ripping yarn, compellingly told. It doesn’t quite sustain its quality to the end, but I’ve picked up “Telegraph Avenue” and am eager to read it. Saw Chabon at the Writers Festival and he was intelligent and funny.
Train Dreams, Denis Johnson (2002). Not quite of the same quality as “Jesus’ Son” (above), but well worth reading.
The Listener, David Lester. The first graphic novel I’ve read. I have nothing against the genre. But this is a bit thin, and in particular suffered I think from an adolescent tone. I’m sure we’ve all encountered the type: oh so knowing, oh so superior, oh so intellectual. The depth isn’t there, in my opinion. It has its moments, and I think the artwork is great and supports the story well. But I wanted more: depth, maturity, and even history.
Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan. McEwan seems to focus so much on his “hook” of a surprise twist at the end of his books (incidentally, I wasn’t sure I believed reviewers who claimed to have figured this one out—perhaps I’m just thick) that the writing is sometimes secondary. I enjoyed this a lot more than “Solar,” but the characters seemed less involving than “Saturday“—I get it, that’s perhaps the point, but that seems like a bit of an excuse. If you like McEwan you’ll probably enjoy this. But I’m losing my enthusiasm a bit, when there’s so much great writing out there, from Michael Chabon to Denis Johnson. I think “On Chesil Beach” was his high point.
We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver (2003). A rare case of a movie that prompted me to go back and read the book. Having finished the book, I want to see the film again; like ‘2001: a space odyssey,’ though not written and filmed in tandem as Clarke and Kubrick did, I see them as somewhat complementary; and it seems Shriver is quite the fan of the film adaptation of her book. At any rate, I thought this was a great book. Sentences that were surprising and original; and of course the characters of the mother and son intrigue. That’s the crux: insight into the psychology of some interesting characters, and by extension of us all. To what extent Eva is an unreliable narrator may be in question, at least until the end of the book. But more interesting is the character of Kevin. I don’t know enough about such psychopaths to judge the quality of the portrayal, but for the most part it convinced me. The only two things that stuck out were Kevin’s altered behaviour during his illness; and his apparent racism. Although I can understand the “breakdown” in his carefully constructed world as he aged from sixteen to eighteen in prison, his relenting during an illness when he was younger was not really explained—not that his behaviour could really be explained, but it made me wonder. Likewise, his precise and controlled intelligence would seem to be at odds with some of the racist remarks he made when a bit older. But these are quibbles. Although having seen the movie first may have dulled somewhat the impact of the book—I won’t post spoilers here—I recommend this book. Though not in terms of style, it reminded me somewhat of Philip Roth‘s “American Pastoral.” I have seen enough of almost-over-the-edge teenage thinking to appreciate the thought that went into Kevin, if not actually being a little scared in retrospect.
The Lake, Banana Yoshimoto (2005). A slight and contrived story masquerading as profundity. Made all the worse by cringe-worthy clichés—though I suspect the translation, by Michael Emmerich, is poor—and unnecessary supernatural BS.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo. I can’t say it much better than does David Sedaris on the slip cover: “As rich and beautifully written as a novel.” Would that all non-fiction be so compelling. Depressing, yes; but the people shine. Definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year. Not much more to say, other than “read it.”
Thinking, Fast and Slow, Denial Kahneman. I need to re-read this: a goldmine of information on psychology; I should have taken notes as a lot of it is applicable to my work. Anyway, fascinating, and definitely recommended.
Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge, Mark Yarm. I was almost next door in Victoria and Vancouver during the “grunge” years in Seattle, so the whole scene seemed almost knowable. This book provides fascinating background information, but is particularly fascinating for how it traces the arc of a scene. Ultimately very sad, of course, not just thinking about Andrew Wood, Mia Zapata, Kurt Cobain, and Layne Staley, but the toll that addiction took. And how quickly fashion moved on and forgot about the town. I went to see a grunge/Nirvana exhibit at the Experience Music Project in Seattle recently, and it was great but ghostly to see artefacts in glass cases from this music that was so human and alive. If you are even a casual grunge fan, you should read this book. My only criticism is that there are so many characters that I found myself having to go to the index repeatedly to remind myself who some of them were.
Vancouver Special, Charles Demers. He picks and chooses, but nothing is sacred and I got a sense of the flavour of my city, both what I already knew and some new angles. And he admits, “Drug money is the unknown variable in almost any economic equation that you can’t otherwise reconcile in Vancouver.”
This Is Not the End of the Book, Umberto Eco et al. I am going to post an expanded review of this book. Some good points, although the two men—Eco is in conversation with someone named Jean-Claude Carrière—are hopelessly clueless about technology, which is central to the argument.
Mortality, Christopher Hitchens. Exactly what you’d expect from Hitchens. And if you’ve read him, that’s pretty good. At the same time, heartbreaking.
Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now: As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It, and Long for It, Craig Taylor. I picked up this book after returning from a week in London last summer (pre-Olympics). A great format to learn about a city: conversations with and stories from Londoners. Would that more cities had such volumes.
Who I Am, Pete Townshend. On balance probably more interesting than Keith Richards‘ “Life,” but it had even more of an absence of any talk of composing the music that is so central to the story. As if how the tunes and sounds were composed is incidental to the events and times and especially the stories, in particularly the “rock operas” Tommy and Quadrophenia. I’d have loved to have read, for instance, about how Townshend put together the synthesizer lines for some of the early ’70s material—but he seems even to have forgotten they were ARP synths.
Last year my post was titled “Books 2011” and thinking about that recently I realized that I don’t read as many books as I’d perhaps like to because I’m often reading periodicals and “newspapers.” In 2012 I expanded my iPad subscriptions. I read the New York Times and New Yorker pretty consistently. Wired is so cheap it’s a no-brainer; if I read four articles a year it’s worth the price. I subscribed to The Economist but didn’t find myself reading it as much as I should: a 2013 resolution. The Walrus finally became available on iPad; it was my last print subscription and I had really stopped reading it because I just don’t think of picking up a paper magazine. There are a couple of wine magazines (Wine Access and Snooth Buyer’s Guide) that I look at now and again. I subscribed to The Guardian/Observer partly because my daughter was living in the UK; but I cancelled it near year’s end as she’s returning and it was also probably too much given all of the above.
Special mention is due The Magazine. I find the articles sort of engaging, topical for a “geek” perhaps. Perhaps. But the interesting thing for me about this “experiment” of Marco Arment‘s is how dismissive he—and apparently much of the audience—has been of the iOS Newsstand. Well, I have to say that all of the publications I’ve listed above so far outshine the writing in The Magazine that this is pretty surprising. Maybe, despite my focus on usability, I find that the problems with, specifically, the Adobe Publishing Suite are completely overshadowed by the quality of content in something like the New Yorker. I like the Magazine app, sure, but I’m not sure it could support the volume of one of these other publications, at least not yet. Maybe it’s the app/framework that Arment should focus on.
Vancouver “Writers Fest”
I wanted to include a note about this event. It seems to me that it’s time for the organizers and announcers to pass it off to a new generation. I saw Martin Amis endure an embarrassingly awful interview by Anne Giardini. At the David Suzuki/Tim Flannery event, “The State and Fate of This Small Blue Planet,” the authors were barely introduced by Hal Wake, who was far more concerned with introducing the “rebranding” of the festival to “Writers Fest”—as he’d done ad nauseum at the other events. Who cares, and what was wrong with “Vancouver International Writers Festival”? Worse, he instructed the audience not to engage in social media during the talk. It seems to me the event needs as much publicity as it can get, especially to attract a younger audience; real-time Tweeting should be permitted. Wake was a bit better while interviewing Michael Chabon.
The best event I saw was An Intimate Interview with Junot Díaz, who was free to talk without a moderator or interviewer. Granted, he didn’t need one; he was incredibly entertaining and gracious—I’ve never seen anyone better at taking a poor or naïve question and turning it around to seem like the most insightful query he’d ever received.
Well, Vancouver is a small town. I’m thinking about going to the New Yorker Festival this year.