Every year I read about 70 or 80 books. I do most of this while commuting—an hour and a half a day, five days a week, gets a lot done. This year so far it’s been 82, and it looks like there will be a couple more before year end. Here are some of the books that stood out, for one reason or another, this past year. Not all were published in 2012, although a number were—in fact, several were published a century ago. In no particular order, other than the order I remember them in, which may or may not be meaningful:
1. Cees Nooteboom—Roads to Berlin (2012). Nooteboom, a Dutch writer who is one of those few writers who is relentlessly European, has spent a fair amount of time in Berlin. In fact, he was living in Berlin in that interesting period of 1989-1990, and has returned a number of times since then. This is a chronological compilation of his writings from that period, and since. Berlin is the most interesting city in the most interesting country in Europe, and Nooteboom captures the many levels of simultaneous jubilation and dismay that accompanied the fall of the Wall and the reunification of what by 1989 had become two very different countries, each with a fair amount of opposition to reunification. As always with Nooteboom, there is a significant amount of cultural context accompanying his political observations. Nooteboom is probably Europe’s most able and lucid cultural critic, and has views on, well, pretty much everything, almost always views worth pondering. What he mainly is concerned with is the range and breadth of disappointments that have accompanied reunification. This disappointment emanates from both east and west, for a variety of reasons, and even today neither the city, nor the country, has healed completely. Underlying the whole enterprise is Nooteboom’s obvious love for, and occasional bafflement surrounding, the entire German ethos, personified by, of course, Goethe. Nooteboom’s reflections are interwoven with observations on German history, culture, art, travel, and even an inspired paean, of sorts, to the East Berlin zoo. For those too young to remember, Nooteboom reminds us of a time when “border crossings’ in much of Europe could be, and often was, a lethal experience. And his description of the actual collapse of East Germany and the wall are inspiring.
2. Lawrence Norfolk—John Saturnall’s Feast (2012). Whenever someone mentions to me that they don’t write books the way they used to, I usually refer them to Norfolk’s first novel, Lempiere’s Dictionary, a book of magnificent scope and imagination. JSF is simpler in its conception, following the life of John Saturnall, whose mother imparts to him the wisdom of the forest and the feast, with the imprecation that the Feast belongs to all. Set in the English Civil War, we witness John’s coming of age, and coming to master his art (cooking), and his love for the lady of the manor. We also witness his trials and triumphs against several foes, a crazy Christian preacher being the most prominent. Norfolk handles the swings of political mood well, and we’re horrified, justifiably, by how much the role of caprice plays in the daily lives of people. And the star-crossed lovers? You’ll just have to read the book to find out. And looming over all is the tension between pagan and Christian England, one that has persisted even, in some milder forms, to this day—but at the time Norfolk is writing about, was still a very real issue, especially concerning the question of witchcraft. A book of good wisdom, told simply and well. And John Saturnall’s observations on food are themselves worth the price of the book.
3. Catherynne M. Valente—The Folded World (2011). The second in Valente’s planned trilogy about the legendary Kingdom of Prester John. Valente is a wonderful writer—some of the sentences in this series are stunning. But it’s the conception that’s the winning dynamic here—Prester John is, of course, the successor to Thomas, Jesus’s disciple who went to India. John followed, and founded a legendary Christian Kingdom in the East full of improbable, indeed miraculous, animals and people. Valente’s conceit here is to take these tales literally, and to build several improbable but moving love stories around them, both in the Kingdom and several centuries later. In this volume, the West, in the form of the Crusades, is beginning to make its presence felt. Volume three comes out in sometime in 2013. I can’t wait.
4. Ken Macleod—Intrusion (2012). Suppose the government decided to take preventive action against potential health hazards? Well, it already does that, doesn’t it? But then expand the range of areas where the government believes it has the right, indeed the obligation, to act preemptively. That’s the underlying issue in Macleod’s excellent novel, a genuine novel of ideas—we follow the lives of young marrieds Hugh and Hope Morrison in a dystopian near-future London, where Hope refuses to take “the fix”—the drug that will cure potential genetic defects. Why? She just doesn’t want to. That’s her business. This gets her noticed, unsurprisingly, and travails and adventures ensue, many of them unpleasant. Macleod is brilliant at this sort of stuff. Henry Farrell over at Crooked Timber had a thoughtful discussion of the book and some of its implications. And let’s consider this thought experiment just in passing—if there were a drug that would render the Adam Lanzas and Jared Loughners of the world harmless, but you couldn’t tell who they were beforehand—should we make everyone take it anyway?
5. Ford Madox Ford—England and the English (1905-1907). This volume actually incorporates three of Ford’s books about London and England—The Soul of London, Heart of the Country, and Spirit of the People. Ford writes generously about the English, and their wonderful gift for accommodating each other. Ford was a great and seminal writer, and was responsible, if anyone was, for Pound, Joyce and the revolution in 20th century literature. And he loved England, although he spent much of his later life in the United States. Here he tells us why. Ford had an amazing range of interests—he would talk about anything to just about anyone, and he does so here, wandering the streets of London, or the back roads of rural England. Ford’s greatest gift was that he actually listened to people. Ford is back in fashion again, at least in Britain, based on the BBC adaptation of Parade’s End. It was pretty good if you didn’t mind that they softened Sylvia up to make her “sympathetic,” and made Tietjens a wuss with no sense of irony whatsoever. Aside from that, it wasn’t bad.
6. Eric Kandel—The Age of Insight (2012). Kandel won a Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine for his work on the molecular basis of memory. He was also born in Vienna, and his family left, as many did, in the 1939, following Kristalnacht. So there’s a personal issue here, although this surfaces only rarely—but it’s there. There is also an obvious love for the fin-de-siecle period at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries when Vienna defined not only modern, but the terms of debate for the following century. Kandel focuses on several figures that defined that period, and what followed—Freud, the painters Klimt, Kokoschka and Schiele, and the playwright Artur Schnitzler, all united by a desire to explore the unconscious, particularly the sexual unconscious. This is an engaging discussion of the roots of modernism, interwoven with Kandel’s discussion about what modern neuroscience tells us about not just the unconscious, but also how we see. How we see art, for example—there are a number of fascinating discussions of Klimt, for example in terms of how the visual system processes what Klimt puts on the canvas. These painters were able, as Kandel points out, to take advantage of the fact that people are geared to process faces, and Klimt, who attended medical lectures, actively attempted to incorporate biological, even evolutionary, thinking into his paintings. Kandel has a deeper purpose, though—Vienna was also, since the middle of the 19th century, the center for advances in medicine in Europe, and this provided a medical foundation for not only the observations of Freud, but also for how Klimt and others viewed the world. These people all hung out in the same coffee houses, after all, and attended the same salons. Much of the roots of modernism, it turns out, derive from the pioneering medical efforts of Carl von Rokitansky, who led the Vienna Medical School in the second half of the 19th century. A fascination intellectual, artistic and scientific history.
7. Libuse Monikova—The Façade (1991). Monikova was a Czech writer and essayist who left what was then Czechoslovakia after the failure of the Prague Spring and the invasion of Czechoslovakia by its neighbors, and relocated to Germany, where she lived until her death in 1998. I picked this up on remainder a couple of years ago on a whim, and finally got to it this year, and am now kicking myself for not reading it earlier. The Façade—there literally was a façade, part of a castle that the four protagonists are restoring when the book opens and closes—becomes a grounding for a set of adventures and frustrations that approach an eastern bloc equivalent to magic realism, as the four, who find themselves invited to Japan, attempt to get there. The bulk of the book is a narrative of their adventures in attempting to complete that trip, and it becomes a glorious metaphor for life under Soviet rule. The have scrapes, some with authorities, others with people who report them to authorities, some with…well, just people. Monikova was an erudite and accomplished judge of humanity, and this is an amazing book, a romp on the one hand, and an incisive look at the bizarreness of life in Eastern Europe under Soviet rule. No longer in print, but you can still track down copies online. Get this book back in print! Sadly, it appears to be the only book of hers that has been translated into English, but if you read German, I suspect you’re in for a treat.
Happy reading! What were your favorites?