Monday, December 28, 2009

Nine new books I read and liked this year

The Philosopher and the Wolf by Mark Rowlands. How a young macho Welsh philosopher becomes a man capable of love -- and a better philosopher -- by caring about and paying close attention to his pet wolf, Brenin. Not Marley & Me nor Cesar Milan, thank god. Stringent, unsentimental, at times rash and self-important, at other times quite beautiful.

The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes. In some ways a book about Frankenstein, where the monster came from, and why he is still with us. Funny to see romantic human nature reflected back on itself. Also, a necessary corrective to the notion that making poems, performing science experiments, and conjuring mathematical formulae are separate and distinct human activities. Holmes, whose two volume biography of Coleridge is one of the present era's great acts of literary love, seems to know everything about the Romantic period, and how to write about his protagonists with grace, insight, and joy. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

The Glass Room by Simon Mawer. A big-hearted, beautifully constructed novel about a Czech building -- and the lives played out within its walls in the turbulent middle years of the 20th Century -- modeled after Mies van der Rohe's modernist masterpiece, the Tugendhat House. Smart, satisfying, sexy, and propulsive. Literary candy for adults.

Music Quickens Time by Daniel Barenboim. A collection of marvelously crafted essays by the world-class pianist and conductor. Here's a sentence from the beginning of the book: "This is not a book for musicians, nor is it one for non-musicians, but rather for the curious mind that wishes to discover the parallels between music and life and the wisdom that becomes audible to the thinking ear." The thinking ear. I like that. Something provocative, delightful, and insightful on every page.

The Good Soldiers by David Finkel. The shocking and "unreal" reality of war at the level of ordinary soldiers, decent and upright Americans trying to do the impossible in Iraq -- fight and subdue the enemy while trying to be sensitive to and supportive of the ordinary Iraqi people to whom that enemy belongs. This goes on that short shelf of recent clear-eyed, hard-headed front-line war reportage next to Dexter Filkins' The Forever War.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. A robust novel of Dickensian proportions in which twins Marion and Shiva spring to life in 1950s Ethiopia and spend the next two decades trying to decipher their place amongst the living, their blood and adopted families, their country and their profession, and the absent father who dominates their imagination. Grandly entertaining, with never a dull moment, written with a doctor's evident love of the physical world.

Payback by Margaret Atwood. A lucid, circumambulatory meditation on the concept of debt, with a host of brilliantly plucked examples from the worlds of commerce, religion and literature. One of the best books to come out of the great crash of the bubble mortgage market and ensuing recession. It makes no attempt to explain recent events in strictly economic terms, but by showing how deeply ingrained are the beliefs which underlay our economic activity, it offers a better explanation than most of the fat journalistic tomes that were published last year.

Trauma Farm by Brian Brett. Eighteen years of farming life on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, recounted in a single day. Earthy, angry, loving, poet-farmer Brett celebrates his creatureliness, and his kinship with all of the life surrounding him, even while railing out against modern industrial agriculture which concedes no value to small farms. The subtitle says it all: "A Rebel History of Rural Life." It contains some of the best writing about animals I've seen in years. A worthy companion to Berry, Abbey, and the rest of Thoreau's children.

Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada. A sixty-two-year-old novel available in English for the first time, this powerhouse of a book re-tells the true story of an ordinary Berlin couple whose simplistic resistance to the Nazi regime achieves heroic stature by virtue of their suffering. The action moves with terrible speed in scenes of documentary quality. Suspenseful, truthful, and unforgettable.

1 comment:

  1. I'm reading The Age of Wonder (finally). Amazingly good. I can't wait to dig in each day.