Books 2011

I got through a good varied crop of fiction and non-fiction this past year. Here are some of the highlights and other notables.

Fiction

The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes. This was my favourite novel of the year. The ambiguities of theme, plot, and characterization provided by an unreliable narrator were conveyed brilliantly (I had fun reading through some online discussion forums on the book). A story of reflection and re-appraisal and revelation, and a page-turner.

The Cat’s Table, Michael Ondaatje. Not at the level of, say, In the Skin of a Lion, but a solid coming-of-age story. The present-day scenes perhaps tie things up too neatly in a way that’s not really necessary; the entire story on the boat has a lot of insight not only into childhood but also a sense of how this might extrapolate into later life.

Half-Blood BluesEsi Edugyan. I thought I would pick up the Governor General’s Award-winning book this year. It’s a great story of jazz music, the stirrings of war, and like the two previous books, memory and coming of age. The author takes her time with harrowing scenes and sharp characters, and a couple of the settings—in particular a closed and darkened club in Berlin, in 1939, where the core scenes of the novel are set—are almost characters in themselves, perhaps similar to how Ondaatje works them into his books.

Tinkers, Paul Harding. Having enjoyed The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao last year, I bought this 2010 Pulitzer winner. A dying man recalls his life and his father; simultaneously ethereal and keenly observant, it’s a journey back and forth through time and lives that ultimately makes some sense of them; and the reconnection at novel’s end strengthens and ties things up in a way that doesn’t feel gratuitous.

Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000), David Sedaris. Hilarious—enough said. (I include this under fiction because, although on the surface it’s autobiographical, I’m sure a lot of liberties were taken.)

Non-Fiction, Biography, Memoir

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, James Gleick. There is so much in this book I’m not sure how to provide an overview that does it justice; and I have to re-read it—it’s difficult to absorb it all the first time through. It’s fascinating overall, and important information for the modern age: so much context that we’re missing or take for granted. From Ada Lovelace to Claude Shannon to Kurt Gödel, from the origins of writing—Gleick argues, interestingly, that the written word is the origin of consciousness, of thinking—to the first dictionaries, through the telegraph and finally information overload; from Dawkins‘ memes (the genetics of ideas) to a seeming grab bag of mathematical and other concepts that nonetheless tie everything together to make sense of what information is, I wholeheartedly recommend this book to all of us who live within, produce, and are information.

The Rise and Fall of Ancient EgyptToby Wilkinson. Since I was young I’ve been fascinated by Ancient Egypt. On a trip to the Metroplitan Museum of Art in 2008 I spent enough time in their Egyptian collection that I realized this hadn’t changed, but my knowledge was sketchy at best. I happened upon this book at City Lights in San Francisco, and overall it was just what I was looking for. I have several minor criticisms, although these may disappear somewhat on a re-reading. It seemed to me that some of the stories of the common Egyptian were lost a little bit as the book moved through the centuries. Perhaps related, the focus on the “dark side” of pharaonic culture seemed to become more implicit than explicit later in the book. I would have enjoyed more maps showing the later dynasties and in particular the centres of the Late and Ptolemaic Periods. Finally, it may be my failing but I found myself having to remind myself of the vast sweep of time represented by the history. It is perhaps more difficult to fathom in the modern world, where more cultural change happens in decades than apparently did over millennia in ancient Egypt.

Sex At Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, Christopher Ryan, Ph.D. & Cacilda Jethá, M.D. It can be a bit repetitive, but the basic insight here—that monogamy is not our natural state of sexual being—is supported not only by (repeated) references to Bonobos, our closest genetic relatives, but everything from sexual cultures that work but that we wouldn’t recognize, like the Musuo, a matrilineal culture in southwest China, to an argument that the shape of the penis evolved to remove other men’s sperm from women. In a sense it demystifies sex,which we are wont to mystify, by reviewing and speculating on its social and biological history. A fascinating and eye-opening read.

Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son, Michael Chabon. A wonderful, very emotional and very conscious review of manhood (but it’s not just for men), life, and family. “Wondrous, wise and beautiful,” as the New York Times review (linked from the title here) observes.

The Mind’s EyeOliver Sacks. Another engaging collection of stories of insight via cognitive and physical impairment, this time with a focus on vision and a personal story: Sacks lost his binocular vision as the result of cancer. His own account is insightful and full of detail. If you like Sacks’ books, this is another good one; if you’re not familiar with them this is as good a place as any to start, though I still recall enjoying in particular An Anthropologist on Mars—perhaps, though, because it was because it was the first of his books I read.

Life, Keith Richards. A great voice. The book is a bit scattershot, with the first third riveting not only for its relating the hard work in musical woodshedding and getting the Stones off the ground, but for Richards’ perspective on growing up in postwar England. The middle bit is almost all heroin, and the story of the music drops away after Exile on Main Street (as it arguably did in quality as well). The last bit is basically human interest, and it is endearing. Overall, one gets a sense—and this is from the man himself, of course, but one can read between the lines—that behind the swagger there is a real gentleman, and a keenly intelligent and observant one.

Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson. Jobs’ death was a big event in the tech year, and though of course I didn’t know the man he obviously had a significant impact on me not only via Apple’s products, which I’ve used since my first Apple ][+, but in my profession as well: Jobs is arguably the most successful interaction designer of all time. So I raced through this book as soon as it was available. In fact I did a bit of an experiment with it: I bought the print edition as well as the iBooks version. I found that I liked the paper at home, but having it available on my iPad was great when I wanted to read a bit at lunch; and particularly my iPhone if I was standing in line somewhere. I wish that publishers would include a soft copy with the hardcover purchase; I want both.

But to the content of Steve Jobs. I’ve obviously been following Jobs, and Apple, very closely for a long time, so I was chomping at the bit for some insight on the period since Jobs returned to Apple fifteen years ago. To be sure, there are some stories here that I hadn’t heard before. But overall, the book is a big disappointment. It feels rushed, and Isaacson didn’t do a lot of investigative work: he just took Jobs’ word at face value. There’s too much to go into here, but I agree almost completely with John Siracusa‘s detailed criticisms of the book in two Hypercritical podcasts: The Wrong Guy (as in, Jobs picked the wrong guy to write his biography); and The Scorpion and the Frog. If you’re at all interested in Jobs, you owe it to yourself to listen to these discussions. The definitive book on Jobs, and on Apple during this era, has yet to be written. (Isaacson has made noises that he is going to revise and expand the book, perhaps aware that these criticisms are valid ones.)

Arguably, Christopher Hitchens. I didn’t finish this—I may never read every single essay—but Hitchens’ writing is so learned and entertaining, and just damned readable—that I wonder why people watch television instead of burying their noses in this sort of thing. It’s a shame he died before his time.

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