Tuesday, December 29, 2015

2015 in Books

After last year's inordinate number of books read, in the mid-60s, I have returned in 2015 to a more reasonable amount, of around 40. Without further ado, here are the books I read in 2015, with a special bonus round at the end commemorating five years of doing these recaps.


Laughter: An Essay on the Comic by Henri Bergson

There are a few gems, in terms of passages, and when he gets going on art it’s good. Mostly cruddy, though.

Six Not-So-Easy Pieces by Richard Feynman

My second encounter with Feynman. This six-chaptered book (like its easier predecessor) distinguishes itself by solely focusing on a single topic: relativity. I appreciate it since, unlike others, it starts with the math (introducing vector algebra), and works forward.

The Periodic Table by Primo Levi

This is an incredible little work – part scientific study, largely memoir, scatterings of fiction – the last chapter is such a knock-out I recommend it wholeheartedly.

The Mountains of California by John Muir

As a Californian I wanted to get in touch with Muir’s writings. This, his first book, has all of the expected love for the “Range of Light” with nice stories of travels and travails, and interesting scientific field-guide types of descriptions.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

With the ecstasy of a Transcendentalist in the woods, Dillard marvels at the world, with passages of crackling familiarity and astonishingly perceptive juxtaposition. A must for anyone interested in the wide-eyed fascination of nature.

The Adventures of Ibn Battuta

Battuta is famous mainly for being a Muslim traveler throughout Africa, Asia, and as far afield as Russia. That journey in particular is often considered a highlight of the accounts, but the work is dry as unbuttered toast, lacking any of the pleasure of a travelogue, reading more as a chronicle.

Mr. Dooley: On Ivrything and Ivrybody by Peter Finley Dunne

Humorous-ish essays from the fictional Chicago barkeep about matters of import from the Spanish American War through Teddy Roosevelt’s administration. An odd little glimpse into the turn of the century, Mr. Dooley was at one time a sort of Jon Stewart and Will Rogers rolled into one. Dialect (broad Irish), references long forgotten, and certain politically incorrect writings have diminished his clout into the 21st century considerably, and perhaps not unfortunately.

Liber Abaci by Fibonacci

Only those with a strenuous love of word problems, medieval mathematics, or obtuse reckoning advised to proceed.

The Adams-Jefferson Letters edited by Lester J. Cappon

The complete correspondence between Jefferson with John and Abigail Adams. Wonderful work, although it does run 600 pages, sometimes in sections that, to the modern reader, are a bit obsolete. Essential for those with an interest in the Enlightenment, early America, or old men complaining about the Missouri compromise.

Outlines of Pyrrhonism by Sextus Empiricus

It’s been a while since I dabbled in writers from antiquity. This book is an overview of skeptical arguments, primarily directed against the Stoics. Interesting highlights.

The New Science by Giambattista Vico

From the early 1700s, this work attempts to reconcile the Bible, mythological poetry, and philology. It does not succeed.

The Upanishads edited by Valerie Roebuck

Commentary on the Vedas that lay the groundwork for the yoga tradition. Some interesting concepts, but by in large not philosophical texts.

Creating Magic by Lee Cockerell

The distance between garbage cans in Disney parks is the same distance it takes while walking to unwrap a candy bar. Gems like this show you how the entertainment empire, the parks especially and hospitality, became the efficient machines they are. I really enjoyed it, and recommend it to anyone who wants to know how to manage... anything.

Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich

When the Belarussian author won this year’s Nobel Prize I immediately searched for this well-praised journalist’s work. The text, comprised of a selection of interviews from all parts of society affected by the catastrophe, is one of the most haunting, harrowing, and devastating books I’ve ever read.

Saving Capitalism by Robert Reich

I’ve read a good deal of Reich. It’s hard for me as a consequence to step out of my bubble and realize that what he’s writing is often new to people.

An Investigation of the Laws of Thought by George Boole

The first 100 pages or so are quite interesting, but eventually the work confounds any but the most ardent enthusiast, with a couple hundred pages of obtuse mathematical equations on probability, with a brief, unedifying coda.


Gitanjali by Rabindranath Tagore

Devotional poems, with some nice turns of phrase.

The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. by Washington Irving

The two famous tales – Rip Van Winkle and Sleepy Hollow – are lost amidst a very reflective, melancholic travelogue through Britain. While parts are intriguing, with other fantastical tales lost within, it does get a bit repetitive and dry.

A Dance to the Music of Time, Second Movement by Anthony Powell

After a year’d passed since the ‘First movement’ I was quickly able to pick up where the narrative had left off. Each ‘movement’ comprised three novels, some 800 pages per installment. Powell’s character, Nick, is now my age, and reflecting as a cypher on the lives of others with increasing maturity. I look forward to the back half.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

I had never read Hugo, so my tradition of reading important French authors continued. Incomparably better (who can be surprised?) than the Disney-fied version.

Journey to the End of the Night by Louise-Ferdinand Celine

Celine is an important French modernist, and influential existentialist. The book reads as a shooting-gallery of existential dreads and numbness, from the pointlessness of high adventure, to the banality of the everyday as months pass…

Gypsy Ballads by Federico Garcia Lorca

I strongly preferred Poet in New York, but that may be due to the difficulties of translating these ballads. Reading a dual-language edition, I recognized (gropingly with my inferior Spanish) that the poems in the original were marvelous, but not well-suited to translation into English.

Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih

A remarkable post-colonial novel, the Sudanese Salih tells the story of a mysterious man, and the plain goings-on after an enigmatic life in Europe. The narrator is an interesting character, as much as the unfathomable subject of the piece.

Before Daybreak, The Weavers, The Beaver Coat by Gerhart Hauptman

A three-play collection of the German realist master and Nobel winner. The first two are proletariat tragedies, and the third a somewhat amusing proletariat comedy.

Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness by Kenzaburo Oe

A repetitive selection of four short novels, focusing on madness, corpulence, family, and suicide, I could appreciate Kenzaburo’s form, but not so much his content.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carre

I rarely read the more ‘popular classics’ but I was very pleasantly surprised by this Cold War spy thriller. I tend to forsake thrillers for the same reason as mysteries, in particular, that they are a long wind-up to a punchline. Yet this work did it so well I wasn’t even mad.

Life and Death are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan

A highly unreliable narrator/author tells a tale of reincarnation in peasant China that progresses from the dawn of Mao’s revolution to the Millennium. Complicated ancestral lines, love stories, reincarnation, and the aforementioned narrator make this difficult to follow, and while passages are rewarding, and Mo knows how to write, the sum is not more than the parts.

Omeros by Derek Walcott

Difficult, lengthy epic of Homeric themes in the Caribbean. Only to be approached if you have a serious interest in the investment. But it may pay off – especially the middle third.

Selected Poems by Jaroslav Seifert

Around the 1930s and onwards Seifert begins to approach high levels of lyricism focusing on a broad theme of love, from romantic and humanist to joi de vivre.

Arcadia Borealis by Erik Axel Karlfeldt

Unabashedly pastoral rhyming poems, reflecting the turn of the century’s reaction against industrialism.

Platero and I by Juan Ramon Jimenez

In a superb translation by Eloise Roach a gentle world is illuminated through Jimenez’s reflections. The last ten pages or so aren’t quite as rapturous as the first two hundred, but it hardly seems fair to malign it on that point.

The Bonds of Interest by Jacinto Benavente

A nice little comedy/farce about society with some better-than-average wordplay.

The Axion Esti by Odysseas Elytis

An interesting and deft poem, celebrating the Greek Orthodox interpretation of the Old Testament, layered with personal recollections of the Second World War.

O the Chimneys by Nelly Sachs

This poetry collection starts out very strong, and gets comparatively weaker, culminating in a rather uninteresting, and unrepentant ‘mystery’ play.

A Longing for the Light by Vicente Aleixandre

A collection of poems which begin with themes of existential loneliness, then segue into passionate manifestations on love…which don’t quite land as well as the earlier works.

Decameron by Boccaccio

One of the few Great Books to elude my reading it over the years I was quite glad to finally encounter this massive work. Ribald and amusing, clearly influential, but – I can’t believe I’m honestly going to say this – could have been shorter. Please don’t hurt me.

Njal’s Saga

Previously I’d only read the short Vinland Sagas, but this lengthy epic has an unusually powerful draw to it, and moves of its own accord. The last section is rather rambly, and poorly tied to the rest, but most of the work is quite compelling.

Idylls of the King by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Tennyson is sad Prince Albert died, and compares him to Arthur. I can only wonder how Victoria, who is analogously the faithless Guinevere, must have thought of it.

Barbarian Odes by Giosue Carducci trans. William Fletcher Smith

Rather difficult to find in English translation, these poems, “barbarian” in their meter rather than subject matter, ostensibly are the Italian poet’s finest works. A knowledge of the classical is a must, and even then they tend to be bogged down in allusion. Those which I knew the allusions, or which avoided that problem, were well written, but this was not the majority. Only worth seeking out if a specialist.

The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

A harsh, violent little book. I’d say hardboiled, but there’s too much attention to color patterns and detail – and its somehow both too greasy and not greasy enough.

Graphic Novels

Saga vol. 1-5 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Good writing and good illustration. Vaughan knows what he’s doing, far outpacing he earlier ‘Runaways’, and Staples clearly has studied Eisner and the rest of the best.

Little Nemo: Return to Slumberland by Eric Shanower and Gabriel Rodriguez

Slim, pleasant volume that pays homage to the great work by McKay. The chapter of Escherian themes was a nice touch, along with a number of other little nods.

Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? and For the Man Who Has Everything by Alan Moore, Curt Swan, and Dave Gibbons

Two particularly good stories of a character that’s very hard to write for well (three actually – The Jungle Line is included and is good too – just not quite as memorable).

Top 5

Voices From Chernobyl
The Periodic Table
Platero and I
Season of Migration to the North
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Special 5th Year Roundup!

My First Books of the Year list was in 2011, and since then I have read, as of this year, around 220 books. So here are the Top 5 in Nonfiction and the Top 5 in Fiction, culled from the best of five years. It’s a fivestravaganza!


Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich
The Periodic Table by Primo Levi
The Unwinding by George Packer
From Dictatorship to Democracy by Gene Sharp
Understanding Physics by Isaac Asimov

TOP 5 FICTION 2011-15

Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar
Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo
Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
Sister My Life by Boris Pasternak (Fayderman, trans.)

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

1 comment:

John Wiswell said...

For the Man Who Has Everything might be my favorite story about that tricky character. The idea that deep down, he doesn't want us, and has to give up on what he wants to help us, is crushing.