Books

Book Roundup: 2014 Reads

All the Time in the World

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Figured I should keep a tally of what I’ve read over the last year, hence my first list of 2015. Read sixteen books, all pictured here save for Strout’s Amy and Isabelle, which I had to return to the library. Enjoyed them, more or less, and a few I’ve already revisited in bits and pieces. Here’s the list in alphabetical order:

  1. Anton Chekhov – Plays (Penguin, trans. Elisaveta Fen, 1954, 453 pgs.)
  2. Douglas Coupland – Generation X (St. Martin’s Press, 1991, 211 pgs.)
  3. Barbara Demick – Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea (Granta, 2010, 316 pgs.)
  4. L. Doctorow – All the Time in the World: New and Selected Stories (Random House, 2012, 277 pgs.)
  5. Dave Eggers – The Circle (Knopf/McSweeney’s, 2013, 497 pgs.)
  6. Dave Eggers – Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? (Hamish Hamilton, 2014, 212 pgs.)
  7. Jonathan Franzen – Farther Away (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012, 321 pgs.)
  8. Glenn Greenwald – No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the Surveillance State (Penguin, 2014, 259 pgs.)
  9. Etgar Keret – Suddenly, A Knock on the Door (Vintage, 2013, 293 pgs.)
  10. Chris Kraus – Where Art Belongs (Semiotext(e), 2011, 171 pgs.)
  11. Colum McCann – TransAtlantic (Bloomsbury, 2013, 298 pgs.)
  12. Haruki Murakami – Blind Woman, Sleeping Willow (Vintage, trans. Philip Gabriel and Jay Rubin, 2007, 436 pgs.)
  13. George Saunders – Tenth of December (Random House, 2013, 251 pgs.)
  14. Elizabeth Strout – Amy and Isabelle (Vintage, 1998, 303 pgs.)
  15. David Foster Wallace & Mark Costello – Signifying Rappers (Penguin, [1990] 2013, 151 pgs.)
  16. Sheldon Wolin – Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton University Press, 2008, 356 pgs.)

I figure if I’d compiled what I’d read in 2013 and 2012 I’d find my count is a bit down this year. The only way to account for that is that there are several books which I started and never finished. I gave up on Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News and a couple of short story collections. I still haven’t finished Please Kill Me (which I’m going through painstakingly slowly) or Alice Munro’s Selected Stories, both of which are very long. I read a couple of local lit mags (The Istanbul Review, where I had a story published, and Rosetta Literatura, which is a shit journal full of poorly-translated essays by Turkish intellectuals, most of which is incoherent garbage) and skimmed through plenty of other stuff. I read the first chapter of The Hunger Games and couldn’t make myself continue.

Only six of these books got written about, and though I’m pretty sure I’ll still do some sort of write-up for a few of them, I don’t think there’s any harm in saying a few words in case I don’t.

Four of these are short story collections. The best, obviously, is George Saunders’s Tenth of December, which I wrote about over the summer. The others are hit and miss. I enjoyed E.L. Doctorow’s All the Time in the World, but there’s something about his style—so staid and formal and old-fashioned—that makes his stories feel like simulations of stories rather than the real deal. Instead of having the impression that they came from some sort of spontaneous creative ether, everything—even the best stories, which really are enjoyable—feel like compositions, as if they were carefully constructed in accordance with some unalterable formula. Maybe that’s just his age showing, though I never got that feeling from Alice Munro, say. As for the other two collections, Keret’s book was a breezy read, but I wasn’t taken in by his whimsical and magical tales. The stories function more like parables. I don’t know. Maybe it’s an Israeli thing.

Murakami’s collection has made me think the guy is more interested in pumping out material than crafting it. While I enjoyed The Elephant Vanishes, I got virtually nothing out of this or After the Quake. He’s great at creating an intriguing story, sprinkling some mystery on top, but too often he pulls the plates off when trying to tug the tablecloth. The reason people constantly compare him to Kafka is that his stuff is weird and hard to crack, though they disregard that the two have nothing in common: so many of Kafka’s works are hard to parse because they were unfinished and never meant to be published, whereas Murakami rolls out his works as though they were perfectly polished. Kafka spent a great deal of energy injecting manifestations of surreal existential fears into everyday life. Murakami relentlessly revisits tropes of mysterious women whom his protagonist inevitably fucks, cooking spaghetti, and jazz. It’s almost like he’s constantly writing about himself because he’s so concerned there’s nothing more to his life than that.

Read five novels and wrote about three of them I loved Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteredge, and since the library at the university has such slim pickings, I scooped up her first novel. It’s a really wonderful examination of mother-daughter relationships, especially those in small towns where the outside world’s heathenness is closing in fast. That struggle between modernity and conservatism is brilliantly illustrated in the foibles of the title characters, who constantly trip each other up and realize their own shortcomings by identifying them in the other. As for Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic, I didn’t feel the pieces connected as well as they did in Dancer or in his magnum opus Let the Great World Spin. Each section was separated by too much time. Of course, it wasn’t until I read Let the Great World Spin a second time that it really came to life for me, so maybe the time gaps will feel smaller if I start again.

Also had three political books, four if you want to count Franzen’s Father Away, which had several political essays. Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy is about the best account you can get of what daily life in North Korea was like in the 90s, when the famine came down hard and defection started to accelerate. Sure, verifying how true the anecdotes are isn’t easy, but it’s best to remind yourself that these people have no reason to lie, and even if the accounts are embellished, it’s still clear that North Korea is basically a dungeon with a degree of social services.

If I recall correctly, I got turned on to Wolin’s Democracy Incorporated by Chris Hedges, who kept turning over the phrase ‘inverted totalitarianism.’ Hedges, to me, is alternately prescient and a verified kook, and I find his worldview so cynical that it’s all I can do to stomach his fire and brimstone ramblings. And while Wolin’s book does have a bit too much abstract social theory—you know, the kind of grand claims about a society and its psychology that are impossible to verify—to give credence to all its forewarnings. Regardless, he does have plenty of observations that are readily true, and he has a penchant for unpacking seemingly banal details of political and media culture that do say a lot about American life and democracy. A must read.

Had I the time and patience, I would sit down and write lengthy pieces about all the books above, but to do so in the meticulous detail I find myself feeling necessary, I’d essentially need to write a book to accompany the original text, and no one wants to read that. Not even me.

I’d like to break at least twenty books for 2015, but considering the length of the stuff I read (nearly 5000 pages), I don’t feel bad. I can’t wait to get back to the States and have easy access to the wide variety of books I’d like to get my hands on.

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