Posts from December 2012
December 27th, 2012
The Best Book … of Venice:
Monumental Venice by Jacques Boulay (photos) & Jean-Philippe Follet (text)
The Best Reprint:
Tottel’s Miscellany, edited by Amanda Holton
The Best Nature Book:
The Last Walk by Jessica Pierce
The Best Fiction Debut:
The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu
The Best Biography:
Clover Adams by Natalie Dykstra
The Best History:
The President’s Club by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy
The Worst Fiction:
Dear Life by Alice Munro
The Worst Nonfiction:
When I Was a Child, I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson
The Best Fiction:
The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman
The Best Nonfiction:
Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon
Thanks very much to all of you who’ve commented (so many privately, of course – after all, what would I want with anything so recherche as a thriving Comments field? Sigh) on this year’s bigger-than-ever Year End spectacular – and on all the other posts that have made up Stevereads this year. 2012 was the single most active reading-year (if that’s not a contradiction!) of my life, both in terms of reading (as of this warm, rainy Boston night, my yearly tally stands somewhere near 725 books) and in terms of writing: between all of my different venues – but mainly, of course, by virtue of the wonderful bully pulpit my colleagues give me at Open Letters Weekly – I wrote about somewhere in the neighborhood of 320 books over the course of the year.
That was a singularly thrilling experience for a book-lover such as myself, and of course it can be improved! Imagine a book review every single day – or even two a day, one on Stevereads and one on Open Letters Weekly (on the latter, for instance, I wrote only about 207 1000-word reviews – shocking sloth, when you consider how many days off that means I had!). I imagine such things – I imagine a year in which I write a review of every single major book published in English in any of the genres I know and love (so: the business and self-help books will still largely need to fend for themselves). I imagine an even full engagement with the book-world in the only really meaningful way: by reading everything, and writing about it all for a smart audience.
No matter what the future brings, however, I wanted to take a minute here in my last entry for 2012 to thank you all for agreeing, disagreeing, counter-arguing, counter-suggesting, and most of all for reading me, not just in 2012 but for the last wonderful six years here at Stevereads. Honestly, it’s a thrill such as I never thought to have – and of course it’s been a huge amount of fun. Here’s wishing all of you much happy reading in the new year.
December 25th, 2012
Ambition could well be the watch-word of this year’s best nonfiction: big books on big subjects predominate our list, much to the delight of grown-up readers such as myself. True, there will always be flyweight garbage (“Poo-Poo: A Cultural History,” etc.), but as long as we’ve got books like this top 10, we’ll be OK – and well-informed.
10. On Politics by Alan Ryan – Two long volumes on the history of politics will strike some readers as a torture chamber in a slip-case, but Ryan has poured a lifetime of learning and wit into this beguiling account of mankind’s second most distinctive activity (right after genocide), with amazingly impressive results.
9. Jesus: A Theography by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola – our authors turn their substantial scriptural knowledge and narrative abilities to the millennia-old calling of finding Jesus Christ not only in all Creation but especially throughout the text of the Bible – a manifestly daunting task considering the fact that nobody in the Old Testament had ever heard of Him. But Sweet and Viola make the attempt with gusto and grace – not a volume for everybody’s taste, but a remarkable achievement just the same.
8. Polpo: A Venetian Cookbook (of sorts) by Russell Norman – Sometimes, a cookbook is much more than a cookbook (see M. F. K. Fisher, or Elizabeth David, or Julia Child), and Norman’s gorgeous love-letter to Venetian cuisine (and the ‘of sorts’ ethos behind much of it) is one of those books, visually stunning and, believe it or not, intellectually challenging. This is – you’ll pardon the phrase – a conceptual feast, and although you should never under any circumstances use most of the recipes (so many cephalopods being emotionally complex and human-level intelligent), you shouldn’t miss the book.
7. The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver – Silver was of course the man of the hour in 2012 for predicting everything even remotely connected with the 2012 U.S. presidential election, but the inscrutable calculations he used for his prognostications were actually only the beginning of Silver’s many fascinations. Frustrated by my failure to understand any reviews I read of this book, I decided to read the book itself – it’s pure wonkery, pruned of all but the most basic entry-level explanations, so reading it is like taking on Everest without a Sherpa. But it’s very much worth it, even if you don’t knock off the summit.
6. New Ways to Kill Your Mother by Colm Toibin – Toibin is one of those authors whose nonfiction almost always out-shines his fiction (there are two or three such authors on our Worst Fiction list this year, alas), and although his novella The Testament of Mary this year was quite good, this book – a collection of critical author-appraisals, with plenty of stirringly-narrated biography mixed in – is even better, full of dour and unique insights.
5. New York Drawings by Adrian Tomine – The contents of this big picture-book will be familiar to New Yorker subscribers: Tomine’s wistful, clean covers are virtually haikus to city living, his young men and women always slightly embarrassed as they encounter the little absurdities of modern life. An entire era is immortalized here.
4. Dive Deeper: Journeys with Moby-Dick by George Cotkin – Cotkin is the ultimate Moby-Dick-teacher-you-never-had, wittily and engagingly illuminating dozens and dozens of aspects of Melville’s Great American Novel. Even Moby-Dick fans will find plenty of fascinating digressions in these pages.
3. Reinventing Bach by Paul Elie – This book ripples and exalts and challenges in an uncanny extension of its subject’s music, tracing the Western world’s enduring obsession with J. S. Bach. Elie’s intelligence and humor accompany a stunning depth of musicological knowledge and turn the whole thing into an examination/tribute such as no A-list composer has had since Hermann Abert’s W. A. Mozart – and this one’s much shorter.
2. Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb – Virtually every sentence of Taleb’s latest volume is debatable – in fact, intensely so. And yet, he chases after his central thesis – that stress can often be a good thing, that battle can strengthen just as well as it can undermine – with a spark and fervor that’s irresistible. This is one of those books that will prompt you to argue with it out loud, much to the confusion of your dogs.
1. Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon – Solomon’s last big book, a study of depression, necessarily spent a good deal of time in the realm of psychology and therefore attached itself to a good deal of hooey, but his latest – a stunning, paradigm-resetting look at families (what they are, how they’re formed, how they stretch to fit new members – and when they refuse to do so) – is on much firmer ground and is far more thought-provoking. A family is a promise of love, and Solomon fearlessly investigates what happens when that promise is stress-tested by the unexpected. For its courage, for some of its much-needed conclusions, and also for its considerable literary grace, this is our Best Nonfiction Book of 2012.
December 25th, 2012
Plenty of slim fiction was published in 2012, and a higher-than-normal percentage of it was crap; by some unknown algebra, the balance of the fictional equation this year tipped to fat, ambitious novels, almost a defiant snoot-cocking to those nabobs of negativity who claim the Internet is destroying the reader’s ability to concentrate. This was a year of big, confident novels, books the reader can wander in, get lost in, and, wonderfully, believe in. Here are the ten best of them all:
10. Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander – Not all of them were long, of course, although most readers of Auslander’s raucous farce about a Jewish family in upstate New York will wish it were longer. That family – the Kugels – explosively embody some of the most persistent (and funniest) cultural preoccupations of being Jewish in the 21st century, from mother who’s constantly recalling the Nazi death-camps she never, in fact, saw to the spectre of Anne Frank, here given hilarious, shall we say, embodiment. Not only a funny-as-hell novel in the style of the great Joseph Heller, but also a clear indication that Auslander can go on to do anything.
9. Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon – The scrappy little record store being threatened by a new corporate rival is just the smallest kernel of Chabon’s sprawling, hyper-talky, hilarious love-note to the monomaniacs, misfits, and redeemable losers he seems to like writing about so much. Past the sprawling cast of characters (including two boys whose friendship is portrayed with aching perfection – something of a house speciality with this author), past the typical Chabonesque topical obsessions (this time with vinyl), there’s the sheer joy of profuse, ornate storytelling. A novel to read and re-read.
8. Dead Stars by Bruce Wagner – 2012 may have been the year – and Dead Stars the book – in which Wagner at last gains the broader readership which his cutting intelligence and acid-etched prose style have always deserved. If so, it couldn’t happen at a better point, since Dead Stars, with its cast of celebrity obsessers, celebrity stalkers, celebrity has-beens, and celebrities themselves, is Wagner’s most complex, most ambitious, and most successful novel to date, virtually a Dante’s “Inferno” of Hollywood.
7. John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk – Courageous profusion has always been this author’s trademark, and John Saturanall’s Feast is his most sensuous, overstuffed book so far, a linguistically wondrous tour through the worlds – and kitchens – of 17th Century England alongside our spirited young hero, a kitchen boy who climbs to the top of the ‘downstairs’ world. Far more than ‘fiction for foodies’ (or “Downton Abbey” fans), this book – Norfolk’s first in over a decade – is, like all his others, a marvellous exploration of the human heart in other eras than our own.
6. At Last by Edward St. Aubyn – St. Aubyn’s epic, diseased cycle of dysfunctional masterpieces culminates and concludes in this slim book, the final instalment in the darkly comedic (and often just dark) family strangulations of main character Patrick Melrose and his vicious family. Not for the feel-good holiday crowd, but one of the great 21st Century novel-cycles in English, full of perfectly-controlled prose that would have sickened Anthony Powell even as it turned him green with envy.
5. The Sickness by Alberto Barrera Tyszka – Also (quite literally) not a feel-good novel, Tyszka’s stunning, harrowing book about how illness and pain (both real and imagined – and indeed, often with the imagined being far worse than the real) form the inescapable, ugly counterweight to health and life just brims with sleek, merciless invention. Although born of very personal tragedy, The Sickness is wonderfully, dauntingly universal, by far the strongest and most brilliant thing this brilliant author has ever written.
4. The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson – The inscrutable land of North Korea is no more scrutable at the end of Johnson’s impressive novel about Pak Jun Do (one of modern literature’s most frustrating protagonists, as irritating and yet compelling a cipher as any of the ‘beloved’ characters found in Dickens), a young man who in the course of Johnson’s generous, incredibly self-confident narrative manages to climb his way into and out of virtually all the circles of North Korea’s social hell. In Johnson’s plot, much happens to no apparent purpose, but there’s a fierce intelligence guiding it all, shaping this into one of the year’s most memorable novels – a book that, like the best ones this year, demands careful re-reading.
3. Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
2. In Sunlight and in Shadow by Mark Helprin – This enormous, gaudy throwback of a novel – rich in atmosphere, hyperbole, and heroism – is a fitting companion to the author’s immortal Winter’s Tale. It’s the story of two fated lovers – Harry Copeland and Catherine Thomas Hale – and the New York, at once factual and fantastic, that conspires to test and then validate their love. More than one critic set the pitch of their praise against some imagined opposition (“You just can’t hate this one! You just can’t!”), and they were right to do so: the bitter, clipped, arrogant hipster cynicism that afflicts so much of the literary world hates on principle all the things this grand, uplifting novel so brazenly champions. But In Sunlight and in Shadow wins all such contests easily – not through the cloy of nostalgia, but through the best, only sure way: the sheer bravura power of its prose.
1. Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman – This long, complex novel – the best of 2012 – intertwines the stories of three very different protagonists – a black janitor, an elderly Holocaust survivor, and a slightly washed-up American historian – and weaves them into an epic, unforgettable story of how things – and people – survive, how they both oppress and complete each other. There are scenes and set-pieces in these pages that could have been written by nobody else, chilling moments and moving plot-threads handled with a brilliance far exceeding even that found in the author’s own superb Seven Types of Ambiguity. Any genre that can boast this novel – indeed, all ten of these novels (and there were a dozen more almost as good in 2012)(prompting some friends to ask for a “Stevereads longlist”!) – has centuries of life left in its sacred charge of storytelling.
December 24th, 2012
As bad as this year’s Worst Fiction entries were, the Worst Nonfiction entries bothered me more, probably because fiction is so inherently variable that it’s hard to hold even its worst excesses against it for long (I have no doubt that some of the authors on that Worst Fiction list will be on future Best Fiction lists, and I rejoice in that fact), whereas nonfiction is supposed to be at least distantly related to truth, at least in the same ballpark as accountability or perspective or any of the other traits the modern world likes to associate with the writing of history. It’s probably a silly categorization in my head, but nevertheless, it’s there – and it makes crappy nonfiction that much harder to suffer with my usual stoical silence. These ten books made me howl the loudest in 2012:
10. Winter Journal by Paul Auster – Auster has amassed a following of knee-jerk acolytes mainly through the strength of his unending navel-gazing, and in Winter Journal (in which our perceptive novelist discovers that human cellular degeneration over time results in a process called aging) he takes things to their logical, horrifying conclusion by actually gazing at his navel for 200 pages. And his ear-hair. And his teeth. And his sagging lumbago. Until even the least charitable reader is pining for the boring Young Turk Auster of decades past, who at least hadn’t yet become Grandpa Simpson.
9. Drift by Rachel Maddow – Blowhard TV comedienne Maddow (whose show neatly embodies every worst aspect of the Clinton-spawned stupid-smart smug Democrat world-view) for some inconceivable reason took it into her head that her ability to polish 5-minute current affairs sketches written by browbeaten functionaries somehow gave her the ability to craft a 140-page socio-political dissertation about the state of the U.S. military. She was in error, as would be anybody who reads the resulting junk.
8. Read This! – The fascist lock-step of the “indie” bookstore mentality is on gruesome display in every one of the must-read lists independent bookstore managers, founders, and workers contributed to this little handbook: the same small group of cool-kid titles crops up over and over again (the editors, in true hipster fashion, boastfully tote up these duplications at the end, as though conformity were a badge of pride). The result is twofold: first, these lists provide an exceedingly ironic – and infuriating – portrait of the cliques of name-dropping schoolyard bullies who’ve supplanted real readers in many of America’s best book shops, and second, this book gives an implied but chillingly clear indication of what would happen to a customer who walked into any of these shops and asked for a copy of James Michener’s Chesapeake.
7. The Guardians by Sarah Manguso – That we live in a self-absorbed age will come as no surprise to the millions who follow all the belch-updates on Twitter, but even so, the stark, self-pitying egomania of Manguso’s book – allegedly about the subway-jumping suicide of a friend of hers but really, relentlessly about how hard everything is for her (even, obviously, generating competent prose), how deep are all her responses, how much people really don’t deserve her, etc. The effect of all this narcissism is immediately obvious: it’s the ultimate expression of disrespect for her dead friend, whose suicide is never given a chance to compete with the Manguso Show.
6. Hitler by A. N. Wilson
5. The Amateur by Ed Klein
4. Ninety Days by Bill Clegg – In previous Steveads year-end lists, we’ve already touched on the “memnoir” – a supposed memoir that reads too good to be true, that reads like a Hollywood screenplay mainly because it is too good to be true. Clegg shot to the front ranks of the perpetrators of such memnoirs with his previous book, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, which purported to chronicle his descent from celebrity book-agent to sex-junky crackhead. Ninety Days tells that hyper-libertied story’s natural sequel: the author’s long and equally factually elastic road to recovery. That hardly one sentence of Ninety Days is literally true is bad enough; what’s much worse from a literary standpoint is that hardly one sentence reads true either.
3. Killing Kennedy by Bill O’Reilly – The runaway publishing success of blowhard TV comedian O’Reilly has had two main, dire results: he gets to call himself a ‘historian’ on his resume, and he’s allowed to keep slapping his name (and the thin mud-veneer of his stylistic tweaks) on these quickie-trots churned out by browbeaten functionaries. This one is ostensibly about the JFK assassination, but really both this book and its predecessor Killing Lincoln (and presumably its sequels, Killing Garfield and Killing McKinley) are ‘about’ what all blowhard TV-conservative rants are about: how much better things were before all kinds of ‘pinheads’ began demanding their civil rights. To say John Kennedy would have hated this book is merely to state the obvious. The real crusher? Lee Harvey Oswald would have hated it.
2. That Woman by Anne Sebba
1. When I Was a Child, I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson – Robinson established an enormous line of credit with her brilliant first novel Housekeeping, and she’s been steadily, industriously chipping away at that credit ever since, with each of her subsequent productions being more shrill and narrow than the last. Her latest book, a collection of essays, only further displays this lamentable public descent into a weird kind of minatory Wahabi Christianity from which no sane work can issue. Whether she’ll ever return to the godly task of writing good novels is open to doubt, but the pinched tail-chasing of When I Was a Child I Read Books – the worst nonfiction book of the 2012 – certainly gives little hope of it.
December 23rd, 2012
The year’s fiction had glorious monuments of quality and daring (you’ll have to wait a couple of days to read about them here), but they were islands in a flood-tide of timidity and preachy topicality (liberally mixed with some Terror Wars sanctimony). In some years, my main complaint has been that novelists disdainfully, arrogantly abandoned the very tenets of their genre – plot, narrative, tone, characters, all thrown out the window in order to be precious. 2012 wasn’t one of those years; almost all the authors on this list, for instance, have proven at one point or another that they have the technical skills to pull off good fiction, and the heartbreaking thing is, most of those technical skills are in evidence even in these wretched works. None of this bad fiction is bad in the way that Fifty Shades of Grey is bad – but in many ways, that just made the disappointment that much sharper.
10. Arcadia by Lauren Groff – The main weakness of Groff’s promising debut The Monsters of Templeton, a tendency toward smartest-kid-in-class obviousness, runs positively rampant in this novel about a utopian commune in upstate New York and the hapless people who live there under the cult-like sway of its leader, a man named Handy (quick, guess: will he be useless?), the young protagonist Bit Stone (quick, guess: will he be taciturn?), and the Handy’s daughter Hell, oops, sorry, Helle (quick, guess – oh, nevermind). The characters, settings, and plot developments aren’t even remotely connected to reality, but there are no elves to make that bearable.
9. Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger – Amina, the young Bangladeshi woman who comes to the United States in response to an online summons to marry George Stillman (quick, guess: will he be dull?) is the most insulting Sambo caricature to appear in American fiction since Tama Janowitz still wrote among us (if you just read her dialogue – her utter astonishment at literally everything she encounters – you’ll assume she’s from Mars, not Dhaka), but that’s only the beginning of this novel’s many condescensions and over-simplifications – a complete waste of time from an author my instincts persist in telling me isn’t one herself.
8. Home by Toni Morrison – The chief peril of the ultra-thin, ultra-oracular style Morrison has adopted in her last few books is obvious: it’s always one little slip away from fortune-cookie triteness. That style made her 2008 novella A Mercy memorably wonderful; in Home, the story of home-returning Korean War veteran Frank Money (quick, guess: will he be sound?) and his abused sister Cee (quick, guess: will she be watery?), that same style goes flat as a pancake and betrays its author into spinning a gauzy little parable without a point.
7. Beginner’s Good-Bye by Anne Tyler – All the raw elements in Tyler’s latest novel should have made me love it: handicapped small-press publisher Aaron Woolcott (quick, guess: will he be meek?) loses his wife Dorothy to an unexpected tragedy and then proceeds to encounter her ghost everywhere, leading him to confront his own grief. But what I got was an ordinarily-good novelist being intolerably lazy throughout, barely moving her materials beyond first-draft mock-up stage, as though confident that she could garner accolades from all the usual suspects without actually working for them.
6. Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver – The unbearably overpraised Kingsolver has built a prosperous career on obvious, derivative novels of no discernible literary quality, but Flight Behavior makes even that grim state of affairs just a little bit worse by mixing in a Cause: when disappointed Tennessee housewife Dellarobia Turnbow (quick, guess: will she have a change of heart?) learns about climate change (with the help of a scientist named – oh, the hell with it – Ovid), a whole preserve-jar of Cause is unscrewed and dumped into the mix, with predictably toe-curling results. Novels like this one should be listed by the EDF as one of the corollary dangers of global warming.
5. Abdication by Juliet Nicolson – You’d think it would be almost impossible to make tedious the story of a king who abdicated in order to marry the woman he loved, but Nicolson manages it in this soppy, mechanical novel about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the only stimulations of which are the spotting of heavy-handed foreshadowing and the winces induced by glass-grating one-dimensional depictions of people who, although not particularly good, were sure as Hell more interesting than this.
4. NW by Zadie Smith – Critics intent on praising Smith (as well they should be, since she’s fantastic) took the desperate tack of calling the almost immediate dissolution of her latest novel (set in the eponymous London region but really about nothing much) ‘kaleidoscopic’ or such stuff – in fact, the book is just poorly conceived and rather abysmally executed. I’m convinced that words like ‘kaleidoscopic’ were invented to spare talented authors the discourtesy of words like ‘misfire’ – and I’m chalking this misfire up to distraction and waiting with undimmed eagerness for what this author does next.
3. The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg – You spend the first 100 pages of Attenberg’s smarmy, gimmicky, patronizing novel about hugely overweight Edie Middlestein, her exasperated husband Richard, and their various friends and relatives wondering how, in what clever Writer’s Workshop way, will it somehow manage not to simply be about how fat Edie is. Then you spend the next 100 pages thinking that’s all the book’s about and wondering why it’s important. And you spend the last 100 pages gorging on Breyer’s Mint Chocolate Chip ice cream just to dull the pain of this sordid, sold-on-itself mess of a book.
2. The Round House by Louise Erdrich – The crime at the heart of Erdrich’s latest and least appealing book is the 1988 rape of a young woman on a North Dakota reservation, and the action – such as it is – revolves around the efforts of various members of her family (from her stereotype husband to her stereotype son and his interchangeable friends) to extract justice from the reservation’s tribal governmental rictus. And those tribal intricacies better interest you, because any hope of dramatic payoff is buried fairly promptly under more bland exposition than you’ll find in a whole shelf of David McCullough volumes.
1. Dear Life by Alice Munro – It’s mostly about train schedules.
December 22nd, 2012
It was a spotty year for another of my favorite genres, history (books, that is – actual history broke somewhat on the side of the good guys, for a change), but there were unmistakable highlights, the top ten of which were these:
10. The Twilight War by David Crist – In this muscular, incredibly readable, and very detailed account of the tangled interactions of the United States and Iran since the Shah was overthrown in 1979, Crist does a completely masterful job of broad-strokes scene-setting, gripping action-narration, and most of all, extremely perceptive character analysis (as might be expected considering the subject, the bulk of the book concerns the Reagan administration, and it’s excellent on that front too) – adding up to that rarest of reading phenomena: a long book you’ll wish were even longer.
9. The Second World War by Anthony Beevor
8. From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia by Pankaj Mishra – This author briefly blazed through the freelance-review firmament by correctly picking a fight with bloated toff Niall Fergusson about his book Civilization: The West and the Rest (the self-satisfied fatuity of which was rendered all the more bitter by its author’s undeniable ability to do brilliant work). Now Mishra turns to epic history himself, writing this magisterial account of the revolutions (and their makers) that flooded into the void left behind by retreating imperialism.
7. How To Do Things With Books in Victorian Britain by Leah Price – The hook, the marketing catch of Price’s book is a fun look at all the non-reading uses to which Victorians (and a smattering of Edwardians) put their books, but Price ranges far beyond that gimmick, presenting an absorbing look at how the modern world’s most vigorously inquisitive era encountered what it read.
6. American Empire by Joshua Freeman – The Penguin History of the United States notches another victory with Freeman’s dense-but-readable American Empire, which chronicles the establishment of the United States as an epochal world power in the wake of WWII. This is oft-trod ground, but Freeman brings fresh energy to it, especially in dealing with the post-Watergate era.
5. The Post-Presidency from Washington to Clinton by Berton Kaufman
4. The Age of Insight by Eric Kandel – The always-provocative Kandel spins out many controversial interpretations in this fantastic and very detailed study of the birth of modernity in 1900 Vienna, but the book’s primary attraction is, perhaps oddly, Kandel’s lively, fluid prose style. All the usual Viennese subjects are here, from Kimt to Freud, but everything is super-charged with vital new perspectives. This is as much a book about human inquiry in any time period as it is about Austria at the turn of the 20th Century – and on both headings it’s utterly fascinating.
3. Through the Eye of a Needle by Peter Brown
2. The Lost History of 1914 by Jack Beatty
1. The President’s Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy – Our authors walk a fine line between history and straight-up journalism – they risk the latter because they write informal, easy prose (although they lack journalism’s hideous concatenation of rudimentary grammar and syntax errors), but they qualify for the former through sheer force of insight – and even, at the oddest moments, a touch or two of gravitas. The subject has exceedingly narrow parameters: the ‘club’ of living U.S. Presidents, and their approach is, as fair as it can hope to be considering that fact that Gibbs and Duffy had to live through all of this history when it was still headlines. What emerges from all these anecdotes and incidents is, amazingly, a very valuable history of power – and Steveread’s Best History of 2012.
December 21st, 2012
As many of you know, I love the genre of biography just a bit more than I do any other genre – at its best, it carries the heft of history, the electric charge of fiction, and the propulsive fascination of mystery (not to mention the bizarre mating-rituals of memoirs). 2012 saw a wet many bad biographies, about two dozen really good ones – and these ten great ones:
10. The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power by Robert Caro – 112-year-old Caro’s destined-to-be-unfinished multi-volume biography of that foul-minded malefactor Lyndon Johnson reaches its climax in this engrossing (and just grossing) book, the first to deal with Johnson’s unearned presidency, and Caro’s narrative powers remain as strong as ever, despite being misemployed in creating such an enduring monument to such an avaricious galoot.
9. Michelangelo: The Achievement of Fame by Michael Hirst
8. John Keats by Nicholas Roe – Biographers started swarming around Keats even before his tiny little body was cold. Nevertheless, archives have been recalcitrant, and even when an author has marshalled all the facts, they often fail to sound anything but foolish about the central reason why we study Keats: all those incredible poems. Roe excels at the archives and the art – 21st Century Keats scholars will have to work very hard to top this book.
7. Ben Johnson: A Life by Ian Donaldson
6. The Crusader: The Life and Tumultuous Times of Pat Buchanan by Timothy Stanley – It’s often been observed (including, by implication, by me, in #s 10, 4, & 2) that a life can be great even if its subject isn’t particularly so – and that idea is surely tested by Stanley’s great, rippingly readable biography of permanently unelectable pig-eyed crypto-fascist Pat Buchanan. The book is a great work of political biography, and, amazingly, quite fair. You might not want to meet the man (and you shouldn’t ever, ever consider voting for him), but you’ll love reading this book about him.
5. The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination by Fiona McCarthy
4. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham – It’s been a great year for U.S. presidential biographies, perhaps in karmic compensation for last year’s blighted crop of criminally callous White House memoirs. Meacham, who previously wrote a very good biography of a very bad president, now writes a flat-out excellent biography of another very bad president, the equivocating, pretentious, slave-owning Thomas Jefferson. This is the single best life of a U.S. President written in 2012.
3. Love, Fiercely: A Gilded Age Romance by Jean Zimmerman
2. Eisenhower in War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith – Eisenhower too has had a banner year for thoughtful re-evaluations, and Smith’s is the longest and the best, doing a strenuous job of reclaiming the somnolent father-figure of the 1950s as a canny geopolitical strategist and a man of peace. None of these Ike biographies manages to convince you of this preposterous premise for longer than five minutes, but this one is by far the best effort.
1. Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life by Natalie Dykstra – Anyone who’s looked at the utterly haunting memorial to Clover Adams done by Augustus Saint-Gaudens in Rock Creek Cemetery will reflexively pause at the mention of her name. Readers of The Education of Henry Adams by her husband will be forever touched by the yawning gap of silence her death imposes right in the middle of the book. In many ways, we no more known how to account for her, for the comet-like way she blazed across her own life, but her elusiveness continually feels important. She’s had biographies before, but none so heartfelt and spirited as Natalie Dykstra’s, the best biography of 2012.
December 20th, 2012
Another yardstick useful in measuring the strength of publishing is the health of its new genes. I have a large soft spot for debut novels (having yanked more than my fair share of them out of talented young authors who fought me tooth and nail the whole time), and 2012 was an exciting, encouraging year for them (despite the idiotic, embarrassing fact that #s 8, 6, 4, 3, & 2 all have identical covers). These were the ten best:
10. An Uncommon Education by Elizabeth Percer – This wrenching roman-a-clef about a socially maladroit young student at Wellesley College has all the quirky, dysfunctional hallmarks that should have made it insufferable, even for a debut – but Percer’s huge narrative intelligence saves the day time and again.
9. The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya – The labored “Antigone” parallels in Bhattacharya’s Afghanistan novel are actually its weakest element; by far more effective are the raw human portraits he sketches throughout, and the hot, sparse beauty of his prose, which so uncannily mirrors the desolate beauty of Afghanistan itself.
8. The Mountains of the Moon by I. J. Kay – Lulu Adler, the central character in Kay’s hugely ambitious, hallucinatory novel, gets one lucky break (some inheritance money) in a life full of unlucky ones, and she uses it to travel to Africa in the hopes of changing her life. Again, the elements are all there for unbearable schmaltz (as we will certainly see in the inevitable Emma Stone movie), and again, it’s the sheer talent and conviction of the author that instead make it something truly amazing.
7. Absolution by Patrick Flanery – The cool balance between conventional plot-driven narrative and richly evocative portrait of South Africa is struck perfectly in Flanery’s story of writer Clare Ward and her secrets. Ten pages of Absolution is enough to convince you this is the author’s tenth novel; the fact that it’s his first could be great news for the world of fiction.
6. The Dead Do Not Improve by Jay Caspian Kang – Almost every aspect of Kang’s debut absolutely pops with manic creativity (starting with the inspired detail that the book’s hapless main character only learns of the book’s key plot development because it happens while he’s Googling himself); the book is a weird comic masterpiece – of a type that virtually guarantees we’ll never hear from this author again (although on that point I’d be happy to be wrong)
5. The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont – The opening of Dermont’s East Coast prep school novel is almost lazily deceptive in both tone and scope, lulling the reader with slangy first-person narration into what steadily becomes a gripping, emotionally intense story about friendship and betrayal, with a surprising and very pleasing amount of heft.
4. Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead – Set on a fictional stand-in for Martha’s Vineyard, Shipstead’s slyly readable novel takes place over the course of only three days and centers on a vain, flawed, status-seeker straight out of Cheever who’s overseeing the wedding of his daughter (she’ll be played by Emma Stone in the movie) – the family summer house is packed with a volatile mixture of family, friends, and extra-marital temptations, and Shipstead handles it all with enviable skill.
3. A Working Theory of Love by Scott Hutchins – Hutchins’ unpretentious book is about fathers and sons finding common ground, and it’s wonderfully complicated by the fact that the son in question is connecting with a computer algorithm of his father, who committed suicide ten years before. The result is at time almost unbearably touching – the book has been compared to Thomas Powers’ Galatea 2.0, but there’s a climactic scene that will also remind readers of the last-60-pages punch of Powers’ The Goldbug Variations.
2. The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker – For an adolescent, parental strife and the agonies of first love can seem like the end of the world, but for Julia, the young heroine of Walker’s amazingly assured debut, these things are suddenly accompanied by the real end of the world: the planet’s rotation is slowing down, and what would have been a grating allegorical gimmick in most other hands is here turned into an enlightening backdrop to some of the finest writing of the year. Read it before the inevitable Emma Stone movie version.
1. The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu – The three young friends at the heart of Boianjiu’s sharp, indelible book – the best debut novel of 2012 – are part of the Israeli Defense Forces, stationed on an active, dangerous border; their lives, loves, and heartbreak are mingled with mortar fire. Like so many of the novels on this list, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid sports the easy, accomplished panache of a novel by a much older author (Boainjiu was born in 1987, which was approximately 35 minutes ago), and like all such stellar debuts, it makes me optimistic for the future of fiction (although less optimistic about the prospect of watching Emma Stone try to “do Jewish” for two hours on the big screen)
December 19th, 2012
The news of the world has never shown a grimmer picture of the war on Nature than we saw in 2012 (compensated only slightly by Nature’s increasing proclivity to make war on us), but the superheated, winterless, waterless blight hasn’t been reflected in the beauty of nature-related books hitting stores. Here are the 10 best from 2012:
10. Natural Histories from the American Museum of Natural History Library – Certainly the most visually arresting nature volume of the season, this oversized slipcased item is a treasure-house of archival-quality reproductions from the holdings of the American Museum’s Research Museum, featuring long, loving passages on dozens of rare 19th Century works of natural history and dozens of separate prints suitable for framing. It’s a celebration perfectly in keeping with the puissant nerdiness of the American Museum.
9. The Sounding of the Whale by D. Graham Burnett
8. Of Moose and Men by Jerry Haigh
7. The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell
6. The Great Animal Orchestra by Bernie Krause – The sheer unending variety of the animal kingdom is most fascinatingly expressed in the sounds it makes, and that inadvertent orchestra is “bio-acoustician” Krause’s subject in all its glory. The book’s lively narrative is accompanied by a disc that will change forever the way you encounter the natural world – a world of excited, passionate whoops, calls, songs, and plain old conversation, ten billion of a day.
5. The Complete Dinosaur (2nd edition) edited by James O. Farlow and M. K. Brett-Surman
4. The Black Rhinos of Namibia by Rick Bass
3. Spillover by David Quammen
2. Comet’s Tale by Steven Wolf – Wolf was a go-getting lawyer when two things radically chanted his life: he was stricken with a crippling spinal disease, and he adopted a retired racing greyhound named Comet, whose sweet nature he gradually freed from trauma and on whom he gradually came to depend for both physical and moral support. It’s a familiar dog-saved-me setup, but it’s beautifully done.
1. The Last Walk by Jessica Pierce – The best nature book this year (and also the best dog book) is immeasurably also the saddest: Pierce writes about the aspect of dog-ownership most dog people don’t want to think about – the end, when the light dims in the eyes and the muscles get stiff or give out and old joints can’t become warm enough. I’ve live through that last, most heartbreaking stage more times than I can count (except that like all dog-owners, I have counted), and I’ve never seen it more intelligently, more searchingly explored than Pierce does in these pages. This great little book is not a happy reading experience – but for dog-people, it’ll be a massively cathartic one.
December 18th, 2012
Despite the usual electronics-fuelled panic about the death of print, print is thriving – as can be seen by one of the surest indices of publishing vigor: non-academic reprints for the so-called common reader. 2012 was a very good year for such reprints, some of which (see #7, for instance) have a kind of financial impetus but most of which are born in committee meetings out of the passion of one or two individual advocates. Of course The New York Review of Books line of idiosyncratic reprints is the big attention-getter in this niche, but here are the year’s ten best ghosts of Christmas past:
10. Horace: A Life by Peter Levi – the studied erudition of this masterpiece is matched – as it must be, in all books about this particular author – by the book’s richly personal tone. It’s one man’s definitive answer to Horace, now given a new life in an attractive paperback from Tauris Parke Paperbacks.
9. The King James Bible with Gustav Dore illustrations –Barnes & Noble.
8. The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes – in the twenty-five years since Rhodes wrote his big, fantastic book, the world’s relationship with atomic weapons has darkly complicated; the national arsenal-balance of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. has been replaced by a Wild West of potential apocalypses; Rhodes’ account of how it all started has ironically never been more relevant.
7. Killing Them Softly (Cogan’s Trade) by George Higgins – The paperback reprint of Cogan’s Trade, issued to coincide with a new movie starring Brad Pitt, is not Higgins’ best work (see: everything else he wrote) and of course not a good movie (see: Brad Pitt), but it’s still a much-needed introduction for modern readers to a master of contemporary fiction.
6. Anno Dracula, Bloody Red Baron, and Dracula Cha-Cha-Cha
5. Windhaven by George R. R. Martin – Long before he struck epic-fantasy paydirt with his “Song of Fire and Ice” series, Martin (and co-writer Lisa Tuttle) crafted this moving story of a water-world where the heroic Pony Express between islands is composed of wing-harnessed flyers, led by a memorable heroine whose life we follow. Wonderful that this classic has finally seen print again.
4. A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, reprinted by the Library of America – Out of all the centennial glut of John Carter reprints (customers spent more, it turns out, on John Carter books than they did on himbo Taylor Kitsch’s big-budget “John Carter” movie), this one is the best – the sturdiest, most graceful portal to exotic lost Barsoom.
3. Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess
2. The Marsh Lions by Brian Jackman, Jonathan & Angie Scott
1. Tottel’s Miscellany, Songs and Sonnets –The inspired decision by Penguin Classics (who else?) to reprint this seminal bestseller from 500 years ago is probably the ultimate expression of humanism over profit (although college English courses may find it a godsend). Here – in its first popular edition in over a century – is the volume that launched English literature’s renaissance in 1557, featuring genre-igniting poetry by Thomas Wyatt, the Earl of Surrey, and other trailblazers, presented in an attractive black-spined Penguin paperback with a lively, inclusive Introduction and Notes by Amanda Holton.