2015 booklist – into Africa

With a trip to South Africa planned for the end of 2015, books about Africa, and South Africa in particular, dominated this year’s reading list.
The best of the lot was Rian Malan’s My Traitor Heart. malanMalan, a South African journalist writes and observes, documents and reflects on Apartheid from the vantage point of someone who carries the weight of the sins of his fathers. He does not for a minute take any undo credit for his anti-apartheid stand, no pats on the back, and is completely honest about his own struggles with biases and conflicts and his place of privilege. It reminded me in some ways of My Promised Land, only 10 times better and much more honest.

Richard Dowden’s Africa: Altered states, ordinary miracles covers the continent as a whole, with each chapter devoted to a country or issue. Dowden, a British journalist, has been coverings Africa since the 1960s and offers both access and insight. There were not that many miracles and the overall sense is rather depressing and hopeless. Everyone got it wrong about Africa, from the colonists, through the super-powers, the aid organizations and the national governments. It’s a hot mess where no-one is spared responsibility (except maybe some missionaries) and good intentions can not redeem.
African fiction complemented the non-fiction readings and mostly demonstrated that real people live in these countries and while they are never really removed from politics, the everyday activities that dominate their lives are very much those of young people elsewhere.
S.J. Naudé, The alphabet of birds is a series of interconnected stories about mostly young South Africans, moving between countries and struggling with national, personal and sexual identity and their place in the world. NoViolet

NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names is a story of a young girl growing up in Zimbabwe in a shantytown with no indoor plumbing and singing Lady Gaga. It enforces some of Dowden’s thoughts on the role of NGO’s in African countries and like all the other books on Africa, turned upside-down my notions on good-bad, home, desired outcomes, personal and national responsibility, and what one can do to help.
While each book was excellent, I was left feeling despondent and ashamed of my pathetic attempts to help by buying books from Better World Books. It turns out that sending our discarded books to African libraries may not be such a good idea after all. First, it fills the shelves with, at best, children’s books that have nothing to do with the African experience, and at worse, with useless 2004 Excel manuals that local libraries are loathe to discard since the book as an object is given high status and weeding the collection is not common practice. In addition, it turns out the donating books to local libraries undermines the local publishing industry that are producing high quality books that are more relevant to the local population.

Africa aside, I read a total of 30 books in 2015, 20 in print, 10 on the kindle, 16 from the library, many many good ones. In addition to the ones described above, the best literary fiction: Rachel Cusk, Outline. The funniest (humor is really hard to achieve and when done right it’s so wonderful) was Julie Schumacher, Dear committee members. Deserving of the credit it received is Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the world and me and the classic that I missed and glad I caught up on is Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the art of archery as well as Death in Venice.


2013 booklist

[complete list] First, for the quick and dirty reviews. I end the year on a strong note with The correspondence of Paul Celan & Ilana Shmueli. The correspondence spans the last year and a half of Celan’s life, before he took his own life at 50. Shmueli is a Screen Shot 2013-12-26 at 7.51.19 PMchildhood friend to Celan, they reunited many years later, when she lived in Israel and he in Paris. They became lovers and confidants. During this year and a half, they met on three occasions, once in Jerusalem and twice in Paris. They corresponded daily, and one can not help but notice how efficient airmail is, a 3-4 day turnaround time in 1969-70). The letters are beautiful and painful and raw. She is both needy and strong and all there for him at the same time. He in sinking into depression and manages to emerge and embrace her here and there. He sends her poems and they write about poetry and his depression and together provide great insight into love, art and depression.
Best fiction books of the year are Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, The Son by Philip Meyer, and Pow! By Ma Yan (2012 Nobel laureate in literature). All three books do a wonderful job in transporting the reader to another world, another existence, and justify a totally different moral framework. All three books made me more understanding towards the “other”. Adam Johnson’s The orphan master’s son, belongs here are well.
Notable mention, also in the fiction category, goes to Claire Messud for The Woman Upstairs.
Best non-fiction go to David McCullough’s The greater journey, Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve and The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. McCullough’s book on Americans in Paris between 1830-1900 was a great book to read as a backdrop for my visit in Paris. I learned so much about the state a medical training, or art and art trade, of sea voyages, of much much more. America was very backwards in many ways. Greenblatt’s The Swerve is another magic book. Concisely packed into 368 pages is the story of the recovery in the early fifteenth century of a Roman Screen Shot 2013-12-26 at 7.49.30 PMmanuscript by Lucretius. And with that a history of literacy and the power of the written word, popes and anti-popes and the bloody wars between them (the Middle Ages certainly make you feel better about the 21th century), and Epicurean philosophy and More’s concept of Utopia (which was a bit lost on me).
The third book in the category is The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks, a book that was so well covered in reviews, it needs no introductions. Of course, of special interest (let’s face it, I’m not into biology) were the privacy and research practices that were taken at the time, or lack thereof, and to what extent this became a game changer. And if I were to predict, this game is about to change again.
What disappointed? First on the list is Just Kids by Patti Smith. I will not deny I read it through, but I found the writing to be rather plain. It has plenty of pace but little emotion or insight, and very little beauty. Another disappointment was Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. This time last year is was hailed on all the book shows as one of the best of 2012. I made it to about two-thirds of the book with a growing sense of discomfort, before deciding that these are all very twisted people and that I want no part in it.

And now, for the numbers:
I read a total of 22 books this year (down from 31 last year). Of these 12 (58%) were from the library and 10 were bought. I read more print (14) than kindle (8) books. Half of the books I borrowed from NYPL (6 of 12), were kindle books. Six of the books were in translation (from German, Swedish, Chinese, Portuguese) and three were in Hebrew.
I learned of 12 of the book from book or radio reviews, six were recommended by friends, and four were picked up while browsing in bookstores.
NYPL continues to be my first choice, although I can’t control the flow, and often end up returning books unread, or not even picking them up (The Goldfinch awaited me twice). My favorite bookstore continues to be Book Culture and Amazon plays an important role as well. I also buy quite a few children’s books as gifts, and for that Bank Street Bookstore is the only place to go (and they both need website makeovers).
Next year I’ll have 3-year cumulative data and will post aggregated stats with tables, and until than, I wish us all a great year in reading.

First impressions of books from New York Public Library and why can’t NYPL be more like Netflix?

I hate it when within a span of a week I get eight pick up notices from NYPL for books that I reserved online. But alas, this is what happened this week, when eight books arrived all at once. Since there is no way in a million that I can read them in three weeks, I spent the last couple of days going over them one-by-one, reading a chapter or two before deciding which I will keep and which I will return unread.
Here are my first impressions of the following books:

Zadie Smith, NW. This is going to the return pile. Despite a promising beginning, Leah, the heroine, who is dwelling on how boring she is, convinced me enough so that I don’t really care to read on. The language feels like it was written for the camera, you could feel it moving between the characters at an angle and their lines. I do admit there are some gems here, even in the first few sentences that I read:
For example, when pondering on the chain of event that improbably brought her and her husband together, she reflects:
It is hard to explain – in that game of musical chairs – why they should have
stopped, finally, at each other.

Or this exchange between Leah and Michel, they end:
What do you want me to say? The world is what it is.
– Then why’re we even trying?

Salman Rushdie, Joseph Anton. I admit, I was never a big Salman Rushdie fan. To me, he is the author of one important book, Midnight’s Children, and I never cared for anything else he wrote. But after hearing an interview with Salman Rushdie on his recent memoir, I decided to give it a try. Bottom line: another one for the return pile. The book is just too long; the 600+ pages should be cut by half. There are some really good sections but they are separated by long sections with side stories on too many characters and it feels like a lot of name dropping is going on. The editor should have been more insistent here.

Robert Caro, The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Maybe my attention span is shortening, but at 736 pages, this too is a bit too detailed for me. We all know that politics is petty but it’s enough to give just a couple of examples and not a play-by-play of the entire eight weeks. The book feels a little like a Twitter reenactment of the first eight weeks of LBJ’s presidency.

Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Two-part Interventions. This novel is “grabbed from the headlines” and based on the story of the pianist Joyce Hatto and her husband and producer William Barrington-Coupe, who was discovered to have faked his wife recording. The story was covered in the New Yorker soon after the fraud was discovered.
The book is readable but not satisfying. Schwartz goes to great efforts to demonstrate Philip’s devotion to his Suzanne but the relationship is flat and has undertones of a romance novel. The parts about the fraud and the chain of reasoning that leads someone to commit such fraud while being well aware of the risks, are the better parts of the book. Alas, when once can choose only 1 or 2 from eight, difficult choices have to me made.

Joseph Epstein, Essays in Biography. This is a book I will probably end up buying. It contains short biographical essays for about forty people, mostly literary figures. I read the one about Bernard Malamud and enjoyed it very much. When a name comes up, I would prefer to turn to this book than to a Wikipedia entry.

And now for the keepers: I put three aside although clearly I will not get to all of them before the due date, so they will probably need to be returned and borrowed again.

Pow! and Big Breasts & Wide Hips by the 2012 Nobel laureate Mo Yan. Both books come with a warning to readers about writing that is violent and bloody, but the first few pages a Pow! Are quite captivating so I will give them a try.

Peter Hoeg, The Elephant Keepers’ Children. Since I loved Simlla’a Sense of Snow I am going to give this book a go as well.

The spring semester begins next week and my reading for leisure is expected to slow down. I wish there was a better way to manage requests from NYPL so that I don’t end up with eight books in one week. Netflix seems to manage that with the 1-at-a-time or 2-at-a-time system, so how about it NYPL?

My 2012 readings: Why aren’t readers borrowing books from the library?

Recently, someone asked me where I get my books, and this sent me to plot the data from my book list so I can generate some statistics. In 2012, I read a total of 29 books, in print and e-book formats. According to a study by the Pew Research center, a non e-book reader reads an average of 15 books per year while the combined e-book/print readers read an average of 24 books per year.
Bottom line: combined readers read more, and my numbers are further evidence.

Like, 21% of Americans, I too read e-books, and have been encouraged to read more, but unlike most Americans, my first choice is always to get my books from the public library. In fact, of the 29 books I read this year, 17 were library books. These include 13 kindle books and 4 print books. Of the 13 kindle books I read this year, 9 were borrowed from the New York Public Library.

Like 88% of American e-book readers, I read printed books as well. As I said, I read
17 print books this year, 13 of them were library books.

But this is where I differ from most American: My fist choice is always to borrow books from the library.
The Pew study reports that these readers
… are also more likely than others to have bought their most recent book, rather than
borrowed it, and they are more likely than others to say they prefer to purchase books in
general, often starting their search online.

As you can see 45% of the books I read this whether print and e-books were borrowed from the library. Not all the books I wanted to read were available at the library, but that was not the only reason I bought book. Four of the 29 books I read were in Hebrew and not available from the library. Some had long waiting periods at the library and for whatever reason I could not wait, and some I wanted to own.

I have many grievances against NYPL (maybe subject for a future post), but I am first to admit that their offering of e-books has increased. I read 13 e-books this year, 9 from the library and 4 from Amazon. Of the four, two were available from NYPL, but I could not wait for whatever reason.
If, as the Pew study reports, most readers prefer to buy books than borrow them from the library, then the library isn’t doing a good enough job in getting their message across to readers. The question is what should we be doing?

As I was riding the subway this week I noticed the Audible campaign ad and could not help but wonder on the possible impact if NYPL engaged in such a campaign. Most New Yorkers, I suspect, are not aware of the resources available from their library.

Summer reading

Without a doubt, the best book I read the summer is Running by Jean Echenoz, but his two other biographical novellas, are also worth mentioning.
Running, Lightening and Ravel are three novellas by the French author Jean Echenoz (B. 1946). Each slim volume is about 120 pages long. The style is not quite as minimalist as it is subtle.
Running tells the story of Czech runner Emil Zatopek, who began running at the cusp of World War II and ran through communist Czechoslovakia, through the spring of Prague, through imprisonment and forced labor, and finally lived to see the collapse of the Berlin wall, all the time running between glory and survival.
Lightening focuses on the life Nikola Tesla, underappreciated genius whose end was all but inevitable given his disturbed personality.
Ravel, tellingly from the title, brings us the last ten years in the life of this French composer, who much to his own chagrin, was made famous to the world for the one composition is regarded the least, the Bolero.
Echenoz’s portraits of these three people are distanced, sober and loving. Both their genius and faults are appreciated. Zatopek is focused on his running, Tesla on his obsessions and Ravel on his image. Their struggles were heart wrenching, yet different and as a reader I responded to each character and his personality.