Like John, I’m going to be donating whatever’s in my Amazon Associates account already, plus whatever commission comes in from people buying over the next quarter (up to March 31). I’ll make the first payment, like John, after the weekend, to the American Red Cross, and will donate whatever comes in after that to a combination of the Red Cross, Medecins Sans Frontieres, and a charity dealing with long term reconstruction (suggestions gratefully received). I’d been thinking anyway of doing a round-up of books that I’d liked this year – a highly varied list of reading suggestions below. As John says, donate what you can directly – but if you want some holiday reading (and to give a little money to charity while you’re at it) use the links below.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. I’ve already blogged at length about the book here – suffice to say that it’s witty, charming, subversive, and deeply intelligent. One I’ll be re-reading as soon as I can prise my copy back from my upstairs neighbour.
The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber. I’ve a weakness for well done faux-Victorian novels, and this is an outstanding example; nearly as good as Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx which is one of my favourite novels of all time. The sexual politics of Victorian England, dazzling imagery and writing, a visceral recreation of the smells, sights and sounds of 19th century London; what’s not to like?
Iron Council by China Mieville. Again, someone I’ve blogged about before, and I (and others) will have more to say about _Iron Council in the New Year. Suffice it for the moment to say that this is his breakthrough book – revolution, mythology and history colliding in a terse, agrammatic, weirdly beautiful prose style. As Michael Dirda at the Washington Post says, “China Miéville’s New Crobuzon is an unweeded garden of unearthly delights, and Iron Council a work of both passionate conviction and the highest artistry.”
The Etched City by KJ Bishop. A city which may (or may not) be an artifice created by the imagination of a sphinx like artist. Cavaliers’ skeletons in the gutter with roses twining through them. Ascetics with lotoses blooming from their navels. The Etched City is an extraordinary work of prose, tinged by Surrealism, but without that fatal sentimentality which afflicts many Surrealist writers; Bishop never falls in love with her own images. Timothy Burke says that he “can’t recommend this book highly enough”
It’s the opposite of Tolkien-esque world-creation, and far less often accomplished or attempted. The Tolkien-type fantasy, even the very good ones, approaches world-creation as a matter of comprehensive scholarship and geek-friendly mastery of consistent detail. Bishop’s Etched City is no less a masterful creation of a world, but it accomplishes this through simply beautiful, utterly original prose and equally memorable characterization. Reading it is like drawing deep in an opium den, a sort of delirium contract between reader and writer.
The Course of the Heart by M. John Harrison. A bit of a cheat, as it’s a book that I read years ago, but it’s finally in print again, and is, for the first time, available in the US. Three college friends encounter (or do they? – they can’t quite remember) the Pleroma of the Gnostic mystics; it ruins their lives. Harrison’s Viriconium books are better known (they’re an acknowledged influence on The Etched City and on Mieville’s work), as is his recent novel, Light, but this is the mother lode. An extraordinary, savage little novel, written in crystalline (but treacherous) prose, which uses the tropes of fantasy as a tool to prise open the fantasies that we all construct about our lives and our failures.
Great Transformations : Economic Ideas and Institutional Change in the Twentieth Century by Mark Blyth. A study of how our basic ideas of how the economy worked changed in the wake of the Great Depression; and how they changed again in the 1970s and 1980s when a new orthodoxy emerged on the right. This isn’t the only book that you should read on 20th century economic history – his explanation is overly idealist and frequently tendentious. Still, Blyth does a very fine job in explaining how ideas matter to the economy, and in describing how a particular set of ideas (some of which had little empirical backing) came to dominate economic policymaking. Blyth (along with Colin Hay and a few others) are engaged in a very interesting, and potentially fruitful intellectual project; trying to cut through the hype and figure out what our real economic options are in the 21st century.
American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare by Jason DeParle. DeParle takes almost precisely the opposite tack to Blyth.
“Ideas are interesting—people are boring,” a welfare expert once told me. Ideas are interesting. But I proceeded on a broader faith, that what has occurred in the lives of the welfare poor is more interesting than either camp has assumed.
De Parle weaves together Washington policy discussions about the abstractions of welfare reform with the lived realities of three women on and off welfare, their children, and their extended families. It’s a powerful, subtle book, that doesn’t present any easy answers (and indeed shows, by careful demonstration, that there aren’t any easy answers).
Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet by James Mann. Multitudes of books are written on contemporary politics, most of which are rightly destined quickly to be remaindered and forgotten. Mann’s book is different – it has a real sense of history, and is genuinely revealing about the histories of the key players in Bush’s foreign policy team and the processes of policy making.
Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players by Stephen Fatsis and Positively Fifth Street by James McManus. I had ambitions to write a post comparing these two books (on competitive Scrabble playing and poker respectively) until I discovered that my friend Michelle had beaten me to it.. They’re both enormous fun. The McManus book can be a little dull when he reaches for strained analogies between poker, creative writing etc etc – but when he talks about what’s happening around the table, it’s dynamite. The Fatsis book does a very nice job of covering another (less well rewarded) group of combinatorial obsessives; “GI Joe” (who won his nickname for a peculiarly active gastrointestinal tract) is an especially memorable character.
The Death of Picasso: New & Selected Writing by Guy Davenport. This is a career-spanning collection of some of the best essays on literature and the arts that have been published in the twentieth century. Warm, humane, intelligent, with a telling eye for detail and for exactly the right anecdote. A joy to read.
Bound to Please by Michael Dirda. Another collection of literary essays and reviews; Dirda is a former editor of the Washington Post’s Book World and Pulitzer Prize winner. Necessarily lighter than Davenport’s essays because of their length, they’re nonetheless utterly wonderful – Dirda’s sheer enthusiasm and delight in the books he enjoys is infectious, and his knowledge of literature and catholicity of taste encompasses multitudes.