Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 in Books

Here are all the books I read this year. As always, a top five at the bottom.


Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault.

I’d read most of this a while ago, so I was just finishing some chapters unread. A very interesting book, looking at a critical development from the gruesome to the out of sight nature of punishment.

Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky.

Alinsky was unknown to me, but for someone intrigued by social revolution, the work was a breath of fresh air. It is starting to get a little dated, but still a very worthwhile read.

The Sceptical Chymist by Robert Boyle.

A very important development from alchemy to real chemistry, unfortunately the amount of dissuasive jargon limits this only to the very interested reader.

The Journals of Lewis and Clark edited by Bernard DeVoto.

An abridgement of the original multi-volume work, running 500 pages, it’s fun to read about the Shoshone and encounters with prairie dogs, but can drag in parts.

Imperialism: Highest Stage of Capitalism by Vladimir Lenin.

If you enjoy dozens of numbers and statistics per page regarding the rise of monopolies around 1900-1910, is this the work for you!

The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon.

With the word ‘bourgeouisie’ on nearly every page, it can get a little tiresome to read this tirade on anti-colonialism from Algeria. Still – he makes some deft points regarding African Nationalism and Pan-African culture (and struggles) as well as a powerful final chapter on psychological consequences of warfare.

Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution by John Paul Stevens.

Concise and well-argued, this book covered four issues I already was aware were problems (gun control, the death penalty, gerrymandering, and my old favorite, campaign finance reform) and two new to me (the anti-commandeering rule, and sovereign immunity).

Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt.

Shy, only just, of mandatory reading for humanity – Arendt’s classic description of the ‘banality of evil’ in Eichmann’s case is not just important, but compelling reading.

Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke

It is hard to like a guy who is more concerned/shocked by Revolutionary about taxes than the guillotine.


House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski.

A wonderfully intriguing text, available to any reader willing to put in the effort and time. Cleverly ergodic at times, it is a valuable reading experience.

Calligrams by Apollinaire.


Operette Morali by Giacomo Leopardi.

Leopardi is known for poetry, but this collection of dialogues is really great, with acute observations of the human condition.

Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather by Gao Xingjian.

A collection of short stories, many will linger on the mind, most notably the title story as well as ‘The Temple’.

The Prophet by Khalil Gibran.

Gibran clearly knew how to write, but I found the advice therein not particularly special or meaningful.

The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow.

My first encounter with Bellow, the text takes a little getting used to, but then turns into a swell novel. That said, while I can remember many chapters, I honestly can’t recall how it ends.

Old Goriot by Honore de Balzac.

Fairly straight-forward morality, Balzac is better than many of the era, especially given his brilliance in describing places, while leaving his characters a little sketchy for the mind to fill in.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf.

I enjoyed Mrs. Dalloway immensely, but found the first half of this almost off-putting. The back half made it worthwhile, however.

Selected Poems by Czeslaw Milosz.

Milosz is a great poet, to be sure, and this compilation made shortly after he won the Nobel Prize shows off why he won it.

Cuttlefish Bones and The Occasion by Eugenio Montale.

Montale had an amazing gift for lyricism, and both collections plumb these depths.

View with a Grain of Sand by Wislawa Szymborska.

With a small oeuvre, I was concerned that Szymborska wasn’t all that good as I started this collection, but she eventually finds her stride and begins writing marvelously.

Selected Poems by Carl Spitteler.

Hard to track down, the only English translation reveals an unknown but actually very talented poet.

Mireio by Frederic Mistral.

Writing in Occitan, Mistral’s pastoral epic keeps the morality of Provence fresh, and displays a definite mastery of poetry.

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov.

My first encounter with Nabokov, I enjoyed this novel immensely, both the poem and the ridiculously predictable commentary.

Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link.

A friend whose judgment I trust recommended Link, and this delightful collection of short stories shows off a great writer who needs to be better known outside of her speculative fiction fandom.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle.

Fun, short, and one which I’ll probably make sure my kids read.

The Cid, Cinna, and Polyceute by Corneille.

The Cid is the best of these three tragedies, due to breaking the mold, but all three were clearly worthwhile works.

Listen, Janamejaya  by Sriranga.

(Along with the following, part of an anthology of Modern Indian Drama.) A pretty typical modernist play, with basic themes but good language.

The Vultures by Vijay Tendulkar.

An unpleasant work about the unpleasantness of modern India.

One Day in Ashadha by Mohan Rakesh.

A very influential play, one of the most read in India today, deals with Kalidasa. In translation it comes off as nothing particularly special.

Evam Indrajit by Badal Sircar.

A nice piece of modernism, better than the rest in the anthology, deals with lives lived before we’re ready or know what we want.

Hayavadana by Girish Karnad.

A very old story, readapted, with a couple of amusing turns and a more interesting female protagonist.

The Main Event in Life by Hu Shi.

(Along with the following, part of an anthology of Modern Chinese Drama.) A very short one act about the generation gap.

The Night the Tiger Was Caught  by Tian Han.

Another play about the generation gap in China. Not very unique, really.

Thunderstorm by Cao Yu.

One of the most popular plays in China before the Revolution – reminiscent of Ibsen, but very well-told.

Teahouse by Lao She.

As years go by the tea house sees changes in the world. Not a new theme, but better done than a great many.

The China Tree by Isam Mahfuz.

(Along with the following, part of an anthology of Modern Arabic Drama.) A Lebanese work, dealing with political tyranny. Very good, original work.

The King is the King by Saadallah Wannus.

I wonder is this famous Syrian play has been read by Bashar Al-Asad. If so he didn’t learn the lesson.

The Zanj Revolution by Izz Al-Din Al-Madani.

Dealing with a historical uprising in Iraq that created a poorly thought-out caliphate, written by a Tunisian, I couldn’t help but relate it to the contemporary.

Night Traveler by Salah Abd Al-Sabur.

A nice, universal, work this wasn’t my favorite in the collection, but it definitely would be the one I’d recommend to be staged in the U.S.

Ali Janah al-Tabrizi and His Servant Quffa by Alfred Farag.

Developing themes from the Arabian Nights an amusing story – but I fail to see how it benefits from being a play instead of a short story.

Eloges by St. John Perse.

There are some nice phrases and turns of language in this, Perse’s first collection of poems. The section on Robinson Crusoe may’ve been the best.

The Incomparable Earth by Salvatore Quasimodo.

Quasimodo had a great command of poetic language, and this collection is the one I presume that earned him his Nobel Prize. That said, I’m having a hard time recalling specific works.

Logbook II by George Seferis.

Masterly in descriptive language, this collection is Seferis’ reflections as WWII begins to rage. The section on Robinson Crusoe struck me particularly.

Sister My Life by Boris Pasternak.

One of the best collections of poems I’ve ever read. To be read by anyone serious about poetry or literature. Flayderman's translation may be distinctive.

To Urania by Joseph Brodsky.

Containing Brodsky’s English poems from the late 60s to the early 80s (when he won his Nobel) I was left expecting more from this collection.

North by Seamus Heaney.

Ostensibly split between more universal themes in Part One and a more direct dealing with the Troubles in Part Two this was my first encounter with Heaney, and I definitely wouldn’t mind reading more.

The Gentleman from San Francisco and Other Stores by Ivan Bunin.

Bunin takes a melancholic road to uplifting places. Reflective, realist, and essentially nineteenth century these are moderately enjoyable stories. He sort of feels like a poor man’s Tolstoy. Highlights include the title tale.

Nostromo by Joseph Conrad.

Considered to be Conrad’s best work besides ‘Heart of Darkness’ I wanted to try Conrad without the tainted racism. It was a fine story, and certainly unconventional in plot outlines, but I’ll be putting ‘Lord Jim’ on hold for some time.

Fences by August Wilson

Roundly, and rightly, considered one of the finest plays in the American canon. Wilson’s play resonates as far more real than A Raisin in the Sun – which I’ve always considered a fairly two-dimensional play along similar themes. I can only imagine what the debut with James Earl Jones was like.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? By Edward Albee

My only prior experience with Albee was ‘The Sandbox’ -  a tremendous play that is as dissimilar to ‘Woolf’ as possible in terms of structure and humor. Like ‘Fences’ this was a long overdue member of the American theater canon for me.

Poems and Songs by Bjornstjerne Bjornson

Unless you have a really, really keen interest in Norwegian poetry…

Kim by Rudyard Kipling

Overtly European in regards to dealings with the subcontinent, phrases like ‘an Oriental’s ability to lie’ and similar condescensions date this work badly. That said it is a quick, sometimes intriguing read.

Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm

A very funny book, it sort of is like crossing Brideshead with Right Ho, Jeeves and is just about as snooty as that sounds.

The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington

“There’s a great, big, beautiful tomorrow…”Except when there isn’t. Avoid.

River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay

An immensely enjoyable historical/fantasy epic. The fantasy isn’t overbearing and blends wonderfully into this story of dynasty and destiny.

The Great Galeoto by Jose Echegary

A great piece of melodrama, if you’re into that sort of thing. Pretty unique for the time it was written, I suppose.

The Blue Bird by Maurice Maeterlinck

An unusual faery play – reminiscent of Faust Part Two or Strindberg’s A Dream Play. Amusing at times, but overall enchanting in a turn of the century way.

Barbarossa and Other Tales by Paul Heyse

Heyse’s tales of tragic love are rather repetitive. Only so many women can be described as the fairest the earth had ever seen, before arousing suspicion.

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I’d long put off this cultural classic, afraid very much that it would be twee. And it certainly verges upon it, but carefully remains clear of the overtly saccharine.

Wonderful Adventures of Nils by Selma Lagerlof

At the time heralded as the next Hans Christian Anderson, Lagerlof’s work is just a moment too late, and would instead be eclipsed by more modern stories within a few years.

Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

One of the best books I’ve read all year. The aging, and dying, Hadrian reflects on his life in a unique moment of history. Wonderfully well written, and, I daresay, a must-read.

Comics and Graphic Novels

Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli.

Alan Rickman in the play “Seminar” described a certain piece of writing as “Perfect…in a whorish way.” It’s the right description for this – it does everything a great graphic novel is supposed to do.

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd.

Having seen the movie years ago, I wanted to get to ‘V’ as a cultural touchstone. However it is an early attempt, and while masterful in parts, is almost ham-fisted in others.

Kampung Boy by Lat.

Having been to the kampungs (what remains) in Malaysia and Singapore, this struck me. It’s a nice little book, and while I wouldn’t think to actively recommend it, I can’t see many people disliking it.

Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine.

Much like ‘Polyp’ this actually started to bore me with righteousness.

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang.

Short, cute little work that deals with being…American-born Chinese. Redeeming in the last couple of chapters, not a bad read for anyone.

David Boring by Daniel Clowes.

‘Boring’ is the middle child of Clowes’ famous works, sandwiched between his best known ‘Ghost World’ and less well-known ‘Ice Haven’. Thematically, visually, and with regard to narrative, ‘Boring’ bridges the gap between those two works.

Top 5

Memoirs of Hadrian
Sister My Life - translated by Phillip C. Fayderman
Rules for Radicals
Six Amendments
Zuleika Dobson

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