sandik

2012 books -- what sticks out for you?

22 posts in this topic

Yes, it's the classic "end of year wrap-up question" -- what did you read this year that really stuck out, for whatever reason (including the "whatever were they thinking" prize)? Add to that books that you might be giving as holiday gifts (or hoping to get as same)...

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Salman Rushdie's Joseph Anton and Hilary Mantel's Bringing up the Bodies.

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Great idea for a topic, sandik. I don't always get to many new books as they come out, but America Aflame by David Goldfield stood out for me. Frank Langella's book, with the admirably forthright title Dropping Names, was an entertaining read. Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations,new last year, was also good, especially with the accompanying CD.

(All three of them would be nice gifts for the right person. It could be me, but I think if you're giving a book as a gift it should be a new or at least newish one. Not necessarily new material, a new poetry collection would be fine.)

I didn't read anything horrible per se, but there were one or two disappointments.

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I should answer my own question -- despite the fact that I've got towers of stuff that need reading, I picked up Nicholson Baker's "The Way the World Works" at the end of the summer and schlepped it everywhere until I was done. It's a collection of essays, which I like since I can skip around in a way that fiction really discourages, and it's a lovely combination of arcane information and mild crankiness. Which seems to describe me lately.

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I recluded myself for 5 days in Dominican Republic with no cell phone or computer and took "The Inextinguishable Symphony" by Martin Goldsmith, a somehow different take on the Jewish experience prior to WWII from a man whose parents belonged to the Kulturbund, a cultural refuge of sorts. Goldsmith mixes up the history of his family (and what he can piece together of the missing parts) with the history of the Kulturbund, and the Goldsmith couple's involvement in the Nazi approved Jewish Orchestra which kept them alive, all resulting in a slower-paced, but still fascinating look at an aspect of Nazi Germany that I hadn't encountered before. The book gives an inttimate view into the machinations and propaganda that actually supported the artists (including musicians, dancers, actors, and singers). A very interesting point on the story goes as a description of what happened with the St. Louis-(the ship of Jewish refugees that was refused landing by both Cuba and the U.S.).

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I agree with liebs about Mantel's Bringing up Bodies. (Which led me to re-read Wolf Hall, though I read that only last year.) .They are among the best works I've read in many years. Tudor history has spawned some of the worst film and fictional treatment I've ever seen, but Mantel's two novels are works of genius. It's interesting to compare them to her excellent but much earlier historical novel, A Place of Greater Safety, centering on the relationship of Danton, Desmoulins, and Robespierre.

I have difficulty in identifying a single "standout" for the year. My standout at any one time tends to be whatever book I'm absorbed in right now. That means Ross King's Leonardo and the Last Supper. (He also wrote Brunelleschi's Dome and Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling.) It's the kind of book that compels me to do something I enjoy very much -- go to the shelves and pull down other books, maps, collections of art reproductions. The internet is a remarkable source, too, especially for quickly locating specific paintings and drawings and for Google Satellite Maps and Street Views of locations.

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That means Ross King's Leonardo and the Last Supper.

Oh, thank you for the heads-up -- my partner really enjoys his work, and I don't think he's seen this one yet. (shhhhh...)

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Sigh ... I'm almost always at least a year behind when it comes to books, movies, recorded music, TV (which I have to do via Netflix since we've turned off cable) - everything that's not live, in other words.

But I do keep current when it comes to Hilary Mantel! I'm with liebs and Bart on Mantel's Thomas Cromwell (soon to be) trilogy -- I look forward to each new volume the way the YA crowd looked forward to each new installment of the Harry Potter or Hunger Games series. (For what it's worth, I'm the same way with George R. R. Martins' Song of Ice and Fire saga, although his books are delicious in an entirely different way from Mantel's beautifully crafted novels.)

Other books published 2012 that I managed to read and liked:

Laurent Binet's "HHhH." Binet is troubled by historical fiction for what I gather are both moral and, to a lesser extent, aesthetic reasons. (Mantel appears to be entirely at peace with the genre, bless her.) So, his gripping retelling of Reinhard Heydrich's assassination by Czech resistance fighters is interrupted at regular intervals by little tangents describing the narrator's travels in the course of researching the event and / or his anxious musings on the nature of history vs fiction and the like. It's not nearly as irritating as it sounds, although he tells the story of Heydrich and his assassins so well you sometimes wish he'd just get on with it already. But I'm glad I read it. His chilly Heydrich is both puny and monstrous.

Gillian Flynn's "Gone Girl" was a blast as a summer read. It's gimmicky -- Flynn isn't quite fair in the way she sets up the plot twist that made the book notorious -- but it's lots of fun anyway. I gather it's going to be a movie, although by rights it should be a mini-series.

"The History of the World in 100 Objects." OK, technically it was published as a book in 2011 and started life as a series of BBC podcasts, but I got it for Christmas last year, so I'm putting it on the list. Neil MacGregor -- the director of The British Museum -- manages to extract a ton meaningful historical, cultural, sociological, and psychological information from even the most fragmentary or seemingly pedestrian ancient artifacts. (He includes spectacular ones, too, of course.) His tone throughout is wondering, generous, enthusiastic, even sweet. I don't think it's the kind of thing you sit down and read in one go, but if you're looking for something you can put on your phone to dip into when you're on the subway or waiting in line at the DMV, this is it. (The photographs of the objects look just fine on mine.) Or you could visit the website and listen to the podcasts here.

I read Robert K. Massie's "Peter the Great" and the recently published "Catherine the Great" back-to-back. Highly recommended -- as a reading experience they're as immersive as novels. I was finally able to wrap my head around The Great Northern War (who knew Sweden had an empire), the battle of Poltava, and the many partitions of Poland.

The "meh" list: Jeffrey Eugenides' "The Marriage Plot" and Alan Hollinghurst's "The Stranger's Child." "The Stranger's Child" isn't bad, really, but it's a let-down after Hollinghurst's earlier "The Swimming Pool Library" and "The Line of Beauty."

The "I can't decide" list: Haruki Murakami's "1Q84" and Kate Zambreno's "Green Girl." Glad I read them, not sure I'd recommend them. "1Q84" feels like it needs a sequel, although I'm not sure I'm up to another 1100 pages of Murakami's peculiar world.

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"The History of the World in 100 Objects." OK, technically it was published as a book in 2011 and started life as a series of BBC podcasts, but I got it for Christmas last year, so I'm putting it on the list. ... Or you could visit the website and listen to the podcasts here.

I've been thinking about this as a gift for someone, and feeling blue that I wasn't giving it to myself, but I didn't know there were podcasts!

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"The History of the World in 100 Objects." OK, technically it was published as a book in 2011 and started life as a series of BBC podcasts, but I got it for Christmas last year, so I'm putting it on the list. ... Or you could visit the website and listen to the podcasts here.

I've been thinking about this as a gift for someone, and feeling blue that I wasn't giving it to myself, but I didn't know there were podcasts!

The podcasts are wonderful. There are indeed one hundred of them and they average about 15 minutes each. You can listen on the BBC site or download them all in iTunes. The book is essentially a transcript of the podcasts with pictures.

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I loved Louise Erdrich's - The Round House. I'm a fan of her work. She's a great story teller.

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Sigh ... I'm almost always at least a year behind when it comes to books,

I don't know, Kathleen, going by your post it looks as if you managed rather well this year. :)

Thank you, vipa. I've never read Erdrich but there must be someone else here who has?

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Count me in as a Louise Erdrich fan! I think I've read all her books (The Beet Queen and The Master Butchers Singing Club are favorites) Still on the wait list at my library for The Round House.

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Meant to add that my favorites this year were In One Person by John Irving and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, which I enjoyed as an audio book read by the wonderful Jim Broadbent.

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Thanks, Barbara. I haven't read Irving since The Hotel New Hampshire, no particular reason, just didn't feel the urge to grab his next one off the shelves.

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I am late to the Hilary Mantel party, having only finished Wolf Hall yesterday; I have Bring Up the Bodies requested at our library but may just buy the ebook and not wait for a copy to be returned.

After talking with and about the Occupy people last year it was time to read a bit more deeply into nonviolent resistance to state power which included Civil Resistance and Power Politics, The Experience of Non-violent Action from Gandhi to the Present, edited by Garton Ash and Roberts; Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan--it won some prestigious and (in one case) lucrative awards; and a bunch of stuff by Gene Sharp who seems to be a reluctant eminence grise to popular movements all over the world. I thought From Dictatorship to Democracy, Waging Nonviolent Struggle and all three volumes of The Methods of Nonviolent Action are particularly good.

Like a lot of people in the US and UK I enjoy translated Nordic crime fiction and managed to find a couple of new (at least to me) authors: Harri Nykanen whose Nights of Awe is the first of a series featuring Ariel Kafka, a Helsinki detective and "one of only two Jewish policemen in Finland". The other is Quentin Bates, an English writer who lived in Iceland for many years, wrote Frozen Assets, a police procedural and first of a four novel series. It has a bit of a "ripped from the headlines" cast, from environmental issues to the Icelandic banking collapse. He writes in English.

Broken Harbor, another harrowing combination of detective fiction and social analysis through the Dublin murder squad by Tana French--she is really good.

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"one of only two Jewish policemen in Finland".

I don't know about you, but a statement like this always makes me wonder about the other Jewish policeman!

Thanks for the non-violent lit list -- I will look for some of these!

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I am reading Woes of the True Policeman, Roberto Bolaño’s last book, about a fifty year old widower and college professor, Amalfitano, and his daughter Rosa who accompanies him on his travels. It written in short chapters which “oscillate” in tone between the comic and the strange and enigmatic. It is dedicated to the memory of Manuel Puig and Philip K Dick.

Amalfitano and his friends wander through the various quarters of the small Mexican town of Santa Teresa where he lives in a kind of academic exile. During their walks they discuss art (one of them forges Larry Rivers paintings for a client in Texas) and literature (another belongs to the Barbaric writers movement). In one chapter Amalfitano compiles his Notes from a Class in Contemporary Literature: The Role of the Poet, some of which goes –

Happiest: García Lorca

Most handsome: Rene Crevel

Fattest: Neruda and Lezama Lima

Banker of the Soul: T. S. Eliot

Whitest, the alabaster banker: Wallace Stevens

Worst house guest: Allen Ginsberg

Best movie companion: Elizabeth Bishop

Most fun: Borges and Nicanor Parra

Least desirable as a literature professor: Charles Olsen

Best Hollywood gangster: Antonin Artaud

Best Hong Kong gangster: Robert Lowell

Best Miami gangster: Vicente Huidobro

Best nervous wreck: Roque Dalton. Also Diane di Prima ...

Another chapter begins –

So what did Amalfitano’s students learn? They learned to recite aloud. They memorized the two or three poems they loved most in order to remember them and recite them at the proper times: funerals, wedding, moments of solitude. They learned that a book was a labyrinth and a desert. That there was nothing more important than ceaseless reading and traveling, perhaps one and the same thing. That when books were read, writers were released from the souls of stones, which is where they went to live after they died and they moved into the souls of readers as if into a soft prison cell, a cell that later swelled or burst.

Oh and in the book all poets are gay (except for a few Russians). “According to Padilla, remembered Amalfitano, all literature could be classified as heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual” is the opening line.

*

I have Roberto Calasso’s new Baudelaire book on order at the library, rather harshly reviewed by John Simon in the Times, who probably should not have been the person chosen to review it. The part I quickly looked at followed Degas tottering around Paris, old and almost blind, visiting old sites like the empty lot where his house had recently stood. In his new apartment all the paintings lean against the walls as if it were just a temporary abode.

Also am interested in Per Petterson’s books just reviewed in the New Yorker, very plain but lovely descriptions of things and situations of everyday life, no frillings. And I liked the stories in Don Delilo’s The Angel Esmeralda – from late last year – especially the one about an accountant in minimum security prison, who each evening watches his two teen daughters recite surrealist rap versions of news headlines on a cable tv network.

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Hello, Ed, it's good to hear from you as always. Non-violent resistance is a fascinating subject. I have the impression that it works better in some cultures than others - there are circumstances where the opposition would be only too pleased to be able to mow you down unimpeded. Gene Sharp's name keeps coming up in my reading these days, I had never heard of him until Occupy.

I have Roberto Calasso’s new Baudelaire book on order at the library, rather harshly reviewed by John Simon in the Times, who probably should not have been the person chosen to review it.

I know what you mean. On the other hand, given the bylines one usually sees in the NYTBR, the Times probably doesn't have that many critics handy who can tackle all the literary and artistic aspects of the book, including the translation, and Simon can do that. (Review here.)

Mannered utterance often turns impenetrable. If you are given to labeling forbiddingly opaque statements with question marks, your margins will easily inherit 70 or more — many more if you are less forgiving. But first, let us give praise where praise is due. At his best, Calasso can be quite impressive, as in the following:

Modernity: a word that emerges and rebounds between Gautier and Baudelaire in the space of a little more than 10 years . . . between 1852 and 1863. And this was always done with caution, with the awareness of introducing an alien notion into the language.....

Currently reading Paul Preston's "The Spanish Holocaust," which is mainly about the Franco terror.

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One of the points that Sharp makes is that the type and intensity of non-violent protest has to be appropriate regarding the regime that is being targeted--it can be anything from mass action to subversive work slow-downs. Whatever methods that are used in a rebellion--and Sharp's list is exhaustive or close to it--it all must be part of removing the consent of the governed from illegitimate (dictatorial) rulers.

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One of the points that Sharp makes is that the type and intensity of non-violent protest has to be appropriate regarding the regime that is being targeted--it can be anything from mass action to subversive work slow-downs. Whatever methods that are used in a rebellion--and Sharp's list is exhaustive or close to it--it all must be part of removing the consent of the governed from illegitimate (dictatorial) rulers.

That makes sense.

Whitest, the alabaster banker: Wallace Stevens

A nice parlor game in the making, Quiggin. I wouldn't mind seeing a couple of movies with Robert Graves. Not to nitpick, but wasn't Stevens in insurance?

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A nice parlor game in the making ... Not to nitpick, but wasn't Stevens in insurance?

Stevens worked for Hartford as a lawyer and dealt with surety and fiduciary bonds. One of his aphorisms is "money is a kind of poetry," and his wife Elsie is supposed to have been the model for the Mercury dime, so there is a bankerly connection. And he once wrote to his wife, from Fort Snelling, Minnesota, "the way the wind rolled in the grass was better than the Russian ballet, although not unlike it."

My favorite category was Best nervous wreck.

Bolaño madly categorizes everything. "That there was nothing more important than ceaseless reading and traveling, perhaps one and the same thing." could the mainspring of all of his novels.

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