Books of 2013

Posted on January 12, 2014

Books, Book, Books

I’ve fallen out the habit of regular book reviews (find my old site’s reviews here), but I thought I would try to throw up a quick survey of the past year’s book reading here. The fact that I’m hurriedly throwing up a bunch of half-assed reviews late underlines a problem with my pattern of consumption and production: I read too much and write too little. This is partly because I spend most of my day-time spare time standing in a subway, where it’s impossible to write, and in the evenings I’m often tired out from the day. But one of my resolutions for the coming year is to write more about what I’ve been reading, and to do so closer to the time I actually read the books.

A few quick notes about this list: First, it only represents a fraction of my reading in 2013. It only lists books, and not journal articles, blog posts, etc. It also omits partially read books. Because I often read only parts of professional books, and because I’m not in the habit of recording my reading of these books, programming, math, and computer science books are almost entirely unrepresented on this list. The list also omits the countless children’s books I read through the year to my son. It also omits the daily reading I do as part of my Atheist Reads the Bible project, on which more later, probably. In the next year, I’m planning to start writing about more than books.

It’s also worth noting that my reviews tend to skew positive. This is partly because at this point I’m good at picking books that I’m likely to enjoy, but it’s also because I tend to abandon bad books quickly, which leaves them unreviewed.

I found it hard to grab nice cover pictures from Amazon, and ended up going to Powell’s for most of them. By way of thanks to Powells for the covers, I pointed the book links to their site. None of the links are affiliate links, i.e., I don’t get any cash if you click on the link and buy. They’re just for your convenience.

Cervantes, Don Quixote

Finished: 1/26/2013

Don Quixote

I kicked the year in reading off by rereading Don Quixote. It was my second or third time through the book, but the first time in at least 15 years. One surprise for me was just how vividly I remembered parts of the book.

Don Quixote is a strange, wonderful, exasperating, hilarious, dull, too-long, too-short book. The plot is familiar even to people who haven’t read the book: Don Quixote goes mad, or half-mad, through the reading of too many tales of chivalry and, fancying himself a knight, sets out with his squire Sancho Panza on a series of adventures. The problem for him is that the mythical days of knights errant never were, and the historical basis of these myths have long crumbled away. And so Don Quixote meets with people on his adventures who are by turns puzzled, outraged, or amused at his strange, anachronistic behaviour. The ones who are amused often amuse themselves further by playing along with him, and this only compounds his difficulty in distinguishing fantasy from reality.

For the literary types, Don Quixote has all kinds of self-referential play and allusions to the act of reading and writing. Don Quixote’s madness comes about through books, and this gives Cervantes an angle of attack on a whole genre of books. In the second part of the book, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza meet characters who have already heard about their exploits in the second part of the book, which Cervantes published after an interval of several years. Cervantes also has them taking shots at a bogus second part to the book authored by another author trying to cash in on the Don Quixote craze that followed the publication of the first part. The role that reading and writing play in shaping the world and our perceptions of it is an important theme of the novel.

But Don Quixote is also full of the lowest kind of slapstick, and some of the scenes are absolutely hilarious in a Three Stooges kind of way.

And then, as I mentioned, some parts of the book drag on and on, and Cervantes seems to have no idea what a slog he is inflicting on his readers.

A good deal of the fun, and the interest, in Don Quixote is that the straight man in the story, Sancho Panza, is also bonkers, while the crazy Don Quixote manages to accumulate a fair amount of evidence to support his delusions, mainly because, as mentioned, other characters in the story, catching onto his madness, begin to collude in supporting his crazy beliefs for their own amusement. And yet, in spite of this support, there are hints scattered throughout the book that Don Quixote wills himself into a delusional state only with some effort, and only partly successfully. If this were not so, I don’t think he would experience such relief each time his delusions appear to be confirmed.

If Don Quixote were only a slapstick story about how an eccentric madman constructs an alternative reality and manages to inhabit it for some time, we might still read it. I think what draws people to it as one of the most extraordinary books in the Western canon is that Cervantes’ analysis of that construction is so subtle that it bears on how all of us construct a view of the world, and the pressures that doubt and desire put on that view to warp it all out of shape. This makes it worth reading and rereading, and I doubt this will be my last time through this wonderful book.

Salter, A Sport and a Pastime

Finished: 1/30/2013

A Sport and a Pastime

The narrator of this book is a young man living in postwar France. Two lovers of his acquaintance awaken his obsessive jealous interest, and he relates the story of their lives together with a fevered hallucinatory vividness. As a portrait of sexual obsession and jealousy, this book nicely captures the way in which sexual obsession can obliterate the personality of the object of obsession. Salter’s narrator is obsessed with a projection, not a full-blooded person. And if it’s fair to see this as a brilliant depiction of one half of a kind of jealousy, it’s also fair for a reader to tire of its depiction. These days, I keep thinking of this brilliant passage by Belle Waring:

As a male reader, I imagine you are probably inclined to feel that in every novel some characters are more fully developed than others, and further, that the degree to which anyone really has a plausible interior life at all varies quite a lot between authors, so the fact that none of the female characters are well-developed and none of them have a plausible interior life might not immediately register. If you are a woman reading these novels it registers painfully and clunkily and woodenly, every page, all the time. It’s as if someone has stuck 8-bit Mario into Grand Theft Auto V but hasn’t noticed any difference and doesn’t expect that anyone else will either. He’s made of giant squares! What the—

This isn’t to reject Salter’s book—it is what it is and he succeeds very well at what he’s trying to do. It’s more to explain why what he’s trying to do is less interesting to me as time goes on.

Mitchell, Black Swan Green

Finished: 2/3/2013

Black Swan Green

By turns funny and dark, this wonderful book is set in England in the early 1980s. Mitchell gets right into the head of a 13 year old boy, and the depiction of the pain and confusion of being 13 is absolutely perfect. Highly recommended.

Doxiadis, Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture

Finished: 2/6/2013

Uncle Petros and Golbach’s Conjecture

This is a story about a young man and his eccentric mathematician uncle. The uncle spends his life trying unsuccessfully to prove Goldbach’s Conjecture. His struggle provides a view into the (narrator’s view of the) nature of mathematical obsession and competitiveness. Think Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology put into novel form.

Thomas, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog

Finished: 2/13/2013

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog

Funny, sharp-eyed.

Abbot, Flatland

Finished: 2/16/2013

Flatland

Flatland is a short Victorian-era book that doubles as social satire on the one hand and an introductory exploration of the mathematics of spatial dimensions on the other. The story drops us into a two dimensional world of lines and figures, and tries to get us to imagine how three dimensional objects might appear to inhabitants of this world. (Imagine poking your finger slowly into this world-on-a-two-dimensional plane. Your finger would appear as a point on first contact with the plane, then a roughly oval-shaped blob with moving sides as your finger continued to move into it.) The social critique comes in mainly with the rigidly hierarchical social world that Abbot imagines for the inhabitants of this two dimensional world. The sexism and the classicism in Abbot’s description are so heavy handed that they blunt somewhat the satirical force of the book, and I admit that I at first mistook what is probably satire for typical Victorian views (and was horrified). That said, it’s obvious why the book has inspired so much affection and more than one imitation.

Mumford, Metaphysics: A Very Short Introduction Finished: 2/20/2013

Metaphysics

This is a satisfying little survey of contemporary analytic metaphysics, and another high quality addition to the Very Short Introduction series. (Fans of the Continental tradition (I’m not one) will be sorely disappointed that they do not even merit an explicit dismissal.) The author tackles the big, traditional questions, such as time, causation, etc., but with a nice twist: He grapples with the nature of metaphysics only at the end of the book. Mumford’s prose style reminds me a bit of D.M. Armstrong—I mean this as a compliment—and I wasn’t too surprised to learn from the cover jacket that Mumford wrote a book about him. Recommended, if you want to learn a bit about contemporary metaphysics.

McCall Smith, Portuguese Irregular Verbs

Finished: 2/24/2013

Portuguese Irregular Verbs

A silly send up of academics and their silly ways.

Burger and Starbird, The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking

Finished: 2/27/2013

5 Elements of Effective Thinking

Not terrible.*

*But what a way to start the book! Why begin a book on effective thinking with a missing-the-point out-of-context quotation from Descartes? “I think, therefore I am” is trying to make a metaphysical point, not a point about the value of thinking.

Saunders, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip

Finished: 3/1/2013

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip

A children’s book on the same subject as most decent children’s books, the stupidity and backwardness of most adults.

Hotta, Hikaru No Go

Hikaru No Go Vol. 1 Hikaru No Go Vol. 2 Hikaru No Go Vol. 3 Hikaru No Go Vol. 4 Hikaru No Go Vol. 5 Hikaru No Go Vol. 6 Hikaru No Go Vol. 7 Hikaru No Go Vol. 8 Hikaru No Go Vol. 9 Hikaru No Go Vol. 10 Hikaru No Go Vol. 11 Hikaru No Go Vol. 12 Hikaru No Go Vol. 13 Hikaru No Go Vol. 14 Hikaru No Go Vol. 15 Hikaru No Go Vol. 16 Hikaru No Go Vol. 17 Hikaru No Go Vol. 18 Hikaru No Go Vol. 19 Hikaru No Go Vol. 20 Hikaru No Go Vol. 21 Hikaru No Go Vol. 22 Hikaru No Go Vol. 23

Go is a beautiful, ancient game of strategy played between two players on a board (usually 19 x 19) who take turns placing either white or black stones on the intersections of the lines on the board. Stones that are surrounded (above or to the side — diagonal stones don’t count as adjacent) are said to have lost their liberties and are removed from the board, prisoners of the opposing player. The object of the game is to control the most territory on the board. There’s a bit more to the rules, but not much. You can teach a four or five year old the rules of Go. But as simple as they are, these rules generate the most exquisitely subtle strategic dilemmas.

I picked up the first volume of this series of Manga comics after seeing it mentioned on Michael Fogus’s blog, and was quickly hooked. The story is about a boy named Hikaru who becomes haunted by the spirit of an old Go master. Hikaru is initially completely uninterested in Go, but he plays a few games to humour his ghost and is gradually drawn into the game himself.

The end of the series is a little flat (I thought it peaked around Volume 13), but the whole thing makes for enjoyable reading, which can then be passed on to a 10 year old who might themselves be bitten by the Go bug. Not only is the story really fun, but it really brings out the fun and drama of Go playing. These are quick reads too. Each volume only takes an adult 30 or 40 minutes to read through.

Kim and Soo-hyun, Learn to Play Go: Volume I: A Master’s Guide to the Ultimate Game

Finished: 3/30/2013 and 4/4/2013

Learn To Play Go, Vol. I

This is a clear and helpful book, with well-pitched exercises throughout. Recommended if you’re looking for a first book on Go.

Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns

Finished: 4/1/2013

The Warmth of Other Suns

20th Century America saw a massive migration of black Americans fleeing Jim Crow in the American South to the great cities of the North of the United States. The reception they got there was not a warm one, featuring fewer blatant legal obstacles to a good life but also many informal and quasi-legal ones.

The Warmth of Other Suns is about this relatively neglected and poorly understood movement. In a solid combination of history and reportage, the book moves back and forth between the larger story of the migration—the numbers and the trends—and a few particular stories featuring people whose lives we chart from beginning to end.

I picked up this book when I saw it recommended on the blog of Ta-Nehisi Coates, and I’m glad I did. Recommended.

Jackall, Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers

Finished: 5/21/2013

Moral Mazes

Reading about Aaron Swartz earlier this year after he had taken his own life, I saw Moral Mazes mentioned as one of his favourite books. It’s a sociological classic now, published in the mid 1980s and based on research conducted in the early 80s into the moral lives and dilemmas of middle managers in several large (unnamed) corporations.

Moral Mazes horrified Swartz, and it horrified me as well, but it’s also a darkly funny book underneath the academic prose. Jackall describes a world in which performance is not related in any meaningful way to professional advancement, a place unmoored from traditional values, in which what is right is what the person above you wants, apart from any practical or moral conderations.

Moral Mazes is also about the seeping of managerial values into the broader culture over the course of the Twentieth Century as the economy changed and filled with more managerial roles. This book remains as timely and important as when it was first published. Recommended for anyone not allergic to academic prose.

Glouberman and Heti, The Chairs Are Where The People Go

Finished: 6/7/2013

Chairs Are Where the People Go

Heti found her friend Glouberman interesting and unusual enough to stick a microphone in front of him, let him talk, and then publish the results. It’s not a bad idea. Glouberman is indeed a thoughtful, likable guy with some interesting things to say. Unfortunately, like everyone else his conversational English has a few quirks, especially a tendency to throw little rhetorical softeners into almost every sentence that comes out of his mouth (“pretty much,” “sort of,” “kind of,” “a bit,” “at some level,” etc.), and although these might not register in conversation, as the book wore on I came to doubt Heti’s decision to (apparently) transcribe every single one of these verbal ticks faithfully onto the page.

Hoban, Riddley Walker

Finished: 6/8/2013

Riddley Walker

What’s not to love about the story of a boy on quest in a bleak post-apocalyptic world, especially one in which the author has taken the trouble to invent not just one, but two different dialects of a degenerate, future English? Marvelously inventive and touching. Highly recommended.

Auchincloss, A Voice From Old New York

Finished: 6/14/2013

A Voice From Old New York

Auchincloss was from old, old New York. In this memoir he offers a glimpse into that world, with all its prejudices and foibles. Not bad if you’re into that sort of thing.

Newport, So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love

Finished: 6/17/2013

So Good They Can’t Ignore You

This book suffers in varying degrees from most of the problems of the self-help/career genre: repetition, cheesy prose, and case studies that wrap up each point a little too neatly. But this book really is a cut above the usual career help book. First, Newport actually has a career apart from telling people how to have a career. He’s a professor of computer science at Georgetown University with a PhD from MIT. And in a novel twist on the genre, he actually looks for evidence to support his views.

The main target of the book is what Newport calls the passion hypothesis, the view that we need to identify our passion and then follow it to get the job that will make us happy. Newport believes that this view is not only wrong, but frequently harmful. True, the rare person has followed their passion all the way to a deeply satisfying career, but just as often people have followed their passion into dead ends (either because it turned out not to be great or because it turned out not to be economically viable). And the vast majority of people who are passionate about their jobs/careers did not get there by following their passion. A whole industry of self-help/career books has promoted this idea, and without any evidence to support it.

What actually makes people happy, Newport argues, is competently doing work they find worthwhile, with a fair degree of autonomy, and while enjoying the company of the people they work with.

The way to achieve this is to build what Newport calls your “career capital,” rare skills and experience that increase your value in the job market. You can then leverage these to gain autonomy. Expect employers to try to stop you at this point: there will be a real conflict between employers who want to harvest your skills and your desire for autonomy and further development.

Gaining rare skills and experience requires a lot of hard work and patience. But hard work isn’t enough: Deliberate practice, a la Colvin, a la Ericsson is the name of the game. Most innovations turn up in what Newport calls the “adjacent possible” that is, the spaces right beside the cutting edge right before they’re filled in. But to get there, you need to work hard and take a craftsman-like approach to your work.

This is all pretty sensible and the book is a quick read, in spite of being a bit longer than necessary. I gave it to my youngest brother, soon to cross the threshold of a first career choice, and I do hope he gets around to reading it.

Scott, Two Cheers For Anarchism

Finished: 6/26/2013

Two Cheers for Anarchism

This is one of the best books I read this year, but I’m holding off on a review until I’ve gone though it at least once more.

Tough, How Children Succeed

Finished: 7/4/2013

How Children Succeed

The title of this book is a little misleading. Most of the focus is on how disadvantaged children fail, and how various interventions might help more of them succeed. There are no easy answers, though we have learned a few things over the years. It turns out that performance on IQ tests and standardized tests don’t matter as much as was once thought. Tough argues that character matters a lot, as do certain kinds of early attachment relations. Teaching character turns out to be more challenging, however, than drilling kids on multiplication tables. In spite of these challenges, Tough argues that we could do a better job of putting the pieces together into more coherent policies that leave fewer children behind. This book is marred by the occasional outbreak of neurobollicks*, and I woud have preferred a far more radical critique of economic disparities that stand behind some of the differences in school performance, but there’s some good stuff here too.

* Eg., p. 28 “The effect of good parenting is not just emotional or psychological, the neuroscientists say; it is biochemical.” This is a goofy thing to say. How could it possibly be emotional or psychological without also being biochemical?

Baker, House of Holes: A Book of Raunch

Finished: 7/15/2013

House of Holes

I’m not even going to try to improve on Elaine Blair’s wonderful review of this book in the NYRB. This book is as deliciously silly and funny as it is naughty.

Baldwin, Another Country

Finished: 8/7/2013

Another Country

I think I prefer Baldwin as an essayist, and I’m not sure that Another Country is completely successful as a novel. But it is highly readable, as well as being far, far ahead of its time and almost mind-blowingly brave in its treatment of homosexuality and race relations. Indeed, I kept flipping to the publication date (1962) in amazement. I will certainly be back for more Baldwin.

Sacks, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood

Finished: 8/20/2013

Uncle Tungsten

I started a new job late this summer in a company that does computational chemistry, so I picked this book up as a prelude to some self-study in chemistry. Sacks looks back over a childhood spent in chemical explorations, encouraged by several family members, of whom Uncle Tungsten is only one. Eccentric, loving, and smart, this book was just the gateway drug to further study of chemistry that I was looking for.

Rediker, Villains of All Nations

Finished: 8/25/2013

Villains of All Nations

This is an academic book about the golden age of piracy in the Atlantic (1716-1726). While not denying the often cruel and immoral practices of pirates, Rediker tries to show that piracy was often a rational response to an unbelievably cruel and immoral set of mainstream practices that defined life at sea. We might even read the continuing mystique of pirates in our culture as a grudging nod to this fact. Lots of fun.

Blackmore, Ten Zen Questions

Finished: 8/26/2013

Ten Zen Questions

For many years, philosophers and scientists of consciousness have been busy at work discussing what they call the “hard problem” of explaining the neurophysiological basis of consciousness. The framing of this problem often takes the nature of conscious experience to be more or less given, and sets about attempting to connect (or show that it is not possible to connect) this subjective experience to objective facts about the brains that give rise to this experience.

Blackmore is not a Buddhist, but she does have years of experience meditating. She’s also a philosopher, with a number of books on the nature of consciousness to her name. Ten Zen Questions combines these two pursuits, by trying to bring insights from meditation to more traditional philosophers of consciousness working within the Western tradition.

Blackmore’s experience meditating and her long exposure to Eastern thinking about thinking gives her an interesting vantage point on the traditional approach to the “hard problem.” If the nature of conscious experience turns out on closer inspection to be much slipperier than many philosophers and scientists have assumed, then the traditional framing of the hard problem may misidentify what it is that we need to explain in the first place.

In Blackmore’s rather extreme view, the problem of trying to explain consciousness is a mistake because what people think needs explaining is in fact an illusion. Her case for this rests in a fascinating, if at times exhausting, and very close look at the nature of conscious experience as she finds it in deep meditation.

I’m not sure whether Blackmore makes a successful case against traditional views of consciousness. And I’m not nearly confident enough about my grasp of the contemporary literature on philosophy of mind to claim that she’s represented it with perfect fairness. But she does seem to me to be successful in challenging a traditional framing of the problem of consciousness (popular especially among scientists) that takes too much for granted about the nature of the phenomenon under investigation. To my mind, this book shows the value in philosophical work that tries to reach far across disciplinary boundaries. It’s extremely difficult to do this kind of thing well, and even harder to please anyone else with it, but Blackmore succeeds in vindicating the approach.

Speaking of hard to please, Blackmore is brave enough to close her book with a response from her Zen master. This response is sharply critical in just the way you’d expect from a Zen master, arguing that she’s made interesting progress in some respects but that her treatment is shallow in other respects. It is to Blackmore’s credit that she prints this interesting document alongside her main text.

Neal Ascherson, Black Sea

Finished: 9/7/2013

Black Sea

When Ethnic Greeks “returned” to the modern nation state of Greece roughly 3000 years after first colonizing the Northern Shores of the Black Sea, after trading and warring and making pace with innumerable tribes, after the intermarriages and the compromises and the adjustments and the influences, after the inevitable drifting of their dialects from the rest of Greece, after Stalin and exile—after, in short, so much history—in what sense did their arrival in Greece proper constitute a “return”? Neal Ascherson probes these and other questions in this meditation on nations and nationalism in the rich and complex Black Sea region. Highly recommended.

Carlo Natali (ed. D.S. Hutchinson), Aristotle: His Life and School

Finished: 9/12/2013

Aristotle: His Life and School

D.S. Hutchinson has edited and translated the book, originally published in Italian in 1991. It’s essential reading for specialists in Classical Greek Philosophy (others will probably miss the value and the considerable accomplishment it represents). Both meticulous and readable, it would have saved me from a number of errors had I been able to read it—alas, I never got around to Italian—back when I was working on Aristotle. (Full disclosure: I was the junior partner on a project with Hutchinson back in the late 1990s and presented some results from it at a conference in Venice organized by Natali, the author. I’ve since left the field, and doubt Natali has any recollection of me. Hutchinson remains a friend.)

Update: Here’s a nice review in NDPR.

Morris, Conundrum

Finished: 9/15/2013

Conundrum

Jan Morris wrote this book in the 1970s (it has been recently reprinted by the New York Review of Books) about her transition from James to Jan. Morris knew from an early age that she was a woman inside, and in late middle age began the process to bring her body into alignment with her mind. The book’s gender essentialism is dated (as Morris acknowledges in a new preface to the book), but her account of her life and transition are fascinating nonetheless. Especially interesting to me was the description of how her social treatment as a person altered as she emerged to the public as a woman. Morris’s account of her transition is remarkably free of drama and angst, and without a doubt she chose wisely to gamble on what was then a somewhat risky surgical procedure.

Recommended for cisgendered people who want to broaden themselves a bit, and especially for the ones who are supporting close friends and family members as they work out their gender identities.

Atwood, The Penelopiad

Finished: 9/17/2013

Penelopiad

Atwood retells the Odyssey through the eyes of Penelope. Good fun stuff.

Dewitt, Lightning Rods

Finished: 9/21/2013

Lightening Rods

I loved Dewitt’s Novel The Last Samurai, but I’ve hesitated to recommend it to most people because I think you have a be at least a little bit crazy in just the right way to get it. I think Lightning Rods should be more accessible, the only price of admission being a taste for hilarious over-the-top satire. The entire novel is written in cliches borrowed from self-help and business books, and while that may sound awful, Dewitt is an absolute genius so of course she pulls it off. The story charts the rise and rise of a businessman with a single outrageous idea. So recommended it hurts.

Heany (trans), Beowolf

Finished: 9/24/2013

Beowolf

I understand that this translation was the occasion for much scholarly finger-wagging, which makes Heany’s decision to print the Old English of the poem on the facing page that much more hilariously ballsy (and arguably a pretentious waste of paper in a mass paperback). Whatever. This is an absorbing, brilliant reworking of the poem in its own right. My only regret is that now I want to learn Old English to see what the fuss is about, and I just don’t have the time for that.

Smith, The Dogs Are Eating Them Now

Finished: 9/29/2013

The Dogs Are Eating Them Now

The Canadian journalist Graeme Smith is the brother of the musician and composer Caitlin Smith, whom I know through my wife. I met Smith at one of my wife’s gigs in 2008 in Brooklyn when he was just back from a stint in Afghanistan and visiting his sister. We all met up again later for a beer, which I enjoyed very much as a chance to pepper Smith with questions about his experiences. Smith mentioned he would be writing this book at the time, and I have been looking forward to it ever since then. I purchased it the day it became available, and devoured it in a few days.

I’m happy to say that it was worth the wait, and roughly the sort of honest, tough book that I expected he would write. Smith frames the book as a sort of narrative of disenchantment. Once a believer that Western forces could bring substantial benefits to Afghanistan, he watches the country fall apart over several years, as Western military propaganda continues to announce one victory after another. I especially appreciated the thoughtful and at times critical backward looks Smith takes at his own reporting during this time. I wish more journalists had the integrity (and the opportunity) to conduct this sort of searching retrospective.

One thing I found a bit odd about the framing—I suspect this is where Smith and I differ most—is that Smith’s narrative arc of disenchantment with the Western project of rebuilding Afghanistan begins with him relatively optimistic as he begins his first stint in the country in 2005. But 2005 strikes me as a bit late to be optimistic about the country’s short and medium term prospects. I checked my own notes on Afghanistan and found this note of despair from 2003, for example.

One thing that sets this book apart from a lot of other journalism about the war is that it is written by someone who isn’t American. Canadian news will always be heavily influenced by American reporting, of course, but it is also inevitably freed from many of its assumptions. I think this makes it especially valuable to an American audience, and I hope that Smith’s book gets the recognition it deserves outside of Canada.

Note: Part of this booknote is repeated from a briefer Amazon review I wrote earlier this year.

Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

Finished: 10/4/2013

Mrs. Dalloway

Rereading this book for a second time, the first time in 2012. It made a much deeper impression on me the second time. Woolf is playing a very deep game in this book, and I think I will hold off on saying any more about it until I reread it a few more times, which I plan to do in 2014.

Malcolm, In The Freud Archives

Finished: 10/7/2013

In The Freud Archives

This is Janet Malcolm’s most famous book (published in 1984), and the focus of a series of lawsuits brought about by one of the aggrieved subjects of the book, Jeffrey Masson. I’ve been meaning to read this book since I was eighteen and fascinated with psychoanalysis, but I only got around to it this year.

In The Freud Archives tells the story of a few characters involved in a controversy over access to Freud’s personal papers and a related dispute about the content and interpretation of those same papers. Much of the drama centers on Masson, then an eccentric scholar of Sanskrit at the University of Toronto who had acquired an interest in psychoanalysis, and Kurt Eissler, who held the keys to the archive. Originally infatuated with one another, the two split angrily after Masson claimed that Freud had covered up actual cases of sexual abuse among his patients in order to promote his own theory that the Oedipal conflict is a fabrication of a young child’s mind.

The story is engaging on several levels. Malcolm carefully teases out the way that Masson’s claims, however provocatively overstated, go to the heart of psychoanalytic practice. The tendency in much psychoanalytic therapy is to emphasize how childhood was experienced, and a corresponding tendency to de-emphasize what actually happened. Masson thinks this is crazy, and for all his histrionics he has a decent point, at least against more extreme versions of his target.

Malcolm’s subtle, probing treatment of this theme—she has an uncommon degree of mastery of the psychoanalytic literature—makes the book more than worth reading. What takes the book from thought-provoking to enormously entertaining are the deft character sketches throughout. Oh let me never be in the same room as Malcolm! Her gimlet eyes see right through to the most absurd part of a person. And she clearly has a real gift in interviews for carefully spooling out rope at just the right rate to assist a subject’s self-hanging. I laughed throughout.

The 1980s were really the last decade in which psychoanalysis was a cultural force to be reckoned with. This makes the book in some respects a bit dated. Even so, I can see why the NYRB has recently republished it. The therapeutic dilemmas that Malcolm explores are still with us in other guises, and the writing is of such a high quality that this is journalism that has passed into literature and deserves to be remembered.

Yates, Revolutionary Road

Finished: 10/10/2013

Revolutionary Road

A novel about a young couple yearning to be special in some way but trapped in their dull suburban lives. An enjoyable read, but not in my opinion the masterpiece some people seem to think it is.

Finished: 10/17/2013 Woolf, Orlando

Orlando

Another book I’ll defer comment on.

Robb, The Discovery of France

Finished: 10/28/2013

Discovery of France This is a book about the other France, the France that often had little to do with Paris, the France of the provinces where French was little understood until recently and the cooking was wretched. It is a France that has often been passed over or minimized by historians in favour of the official France, defined by the culture and language of Paris. Robb’s account of this world is packed with strange, entertaining episodes.

I came across this book after reading a passage from it on a favourite blog. If that sample appeals to you, then there’s plenty more like it in the book.

ed. Bussel, Best Sex Writing 2012

Finished: 11/6/2013

Best Sex Writing 2012

This collection consists of 24 short selections, which range from very weak (e.g., Thomas Roche’s anti-anti-sex work piece, which reads like it was dictated while he was driving and then submitted without any proof reading) to not bad (Ellen Friedrichs on the inconsistent, inconsistently applied, and draconian laws around teen sex in the United States. I hope this isn’t really the best sex writing of 2012.

Logue, Prince Charming

Finished: 11/15/2013

Prince Charming

“It is lowering to recount behaviour one is ashamed of,” says Logue at one point in this memoir. And yet that is exactly what he does for many pages of Prince Charming. For the most part, he strikes a nice balance between self-flagellation and self-justification, and manages to come off as a fairly decent guy.

Late bloomers may find some consolation in these pages. Logue eventually found his place in English letters with a wonderfully inventive recreation of parts of Homer’s Iliad called War Music, but for the first part of his life he seems to have struck everyone, including himself, as hopeless.

It look me about a hundred pages to warm to this book, but I found the next two hundred odd pages very engaging.

Farrell, Troubles

Finished: 11/30/2013

Troubles

Darkly funny novel set in Ireland in the 1920s as the “troubles” worsened. Recommended if you enjoy 400 page novels about paralyzing depression (I do!).

Shakespeare, Richard III

Finished: 12/5/2013

Richard III

This was my first time through Richard III, which I read in anticipation of Mark Rylance’s Richard III on Broadway. It was entertaining, but I admit that I did not catch how funny play could be until I saw what Rylance did with it. The play itself is uneven in places—the scene in which Richard III woos Anne is especially silly—but also has some great moments.

Lorrie Moore, A Gate At the Stairs

Finished: 12/14/2013

A Gate At The Stairs

I’m a fan of Moore, with her smart, articulate, funny characters. This particular novel was not a masterpiece, but it was difficult to put down, and it did contain one wrenching scene that I don’t think I will be able to forget.

Antony Huchette, Brooklyn Quesadillas

Finished: 12/14/2013

Brooklyn Quesadillas

Huchette is an illustrator who lives in our neighbourhood in Brooklyn. We met him and his wife because he has a son around our own child’s age and our child later went to a daycare run by Huchette’s wife. The book’s strange originality makes it a bit hard to describe, but perhaps this will do: a surreal, dreamlike account of what it’s like to be a struggling, horny, married artist in Brooklyn. I enjoyed it, though be warned, that gaze is 100% male.

Christopher Logue and Bert Kitchen, Abecedary

Finished: 11/20/2013, 12/16/2013

Abecedary

More Logue. Silly verse by Logue accompanied by Kitchen’s illustrations. My favourite verse in the collection:

’Tis just as well
In the Customs shed
They search my bag
But not my head.

Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf’s Nose

Finished: 12/17/2013

Virginia Woolf’s Nose

Four interlocking essays on the nature of biography and biographical writing. Lee has a commanding view of the material and although she has opinions to share, her modus operandi is usually a careful, aporetic circling around a set of questions. Illuminating and engrossing.

Plato, Gorgias

Finished: 12/28/2013

Plato’s Gorgias

This dialogue is rarely taught to undergraduates, being passed over in favour of works like The Euthyphro, The Phaedo, The Apology, and often The Republic. The reasons for this are fair enough: Apart from their merits, these works have a more central place in the canon, and a student who reads the central books of The Republic will come away recognizing allusions to Plato in later thought for years to come. The problem is that The Republic is a bit of a slog in places for students and lacking in drama after the first book. I’ve long thought that The Gorgias makes a wonderful alternative introduction to Plato, and indeed to the study of philosophy in general, and back when I taught philosophy I spent several semesters lovingly going through The Gorgias at the leisurely pace it deserves. I would say more, but what I want to say can wait for later: I am planning on working on some reading notes for the dialogue that will get its own page on this site. Stay tuned.