Thursday, December 29, 2016

2016 in Books

As has become an annual tradition, here is a look back at the books I read, 2016. Best of at the bottom.


Treatise on Thermodynamics by Max Planck

The first third is eminently readable for a layperson – a trait so often lacking in scientific works. Unfortunately the next two hundred pages are nigh incomprehensible even when attempting to decipher the equations. That said, I’m glad it clarified the first two laws for me.

Collected Essays of Rudolf Eucken

Eucken is an apologist, and slathers on the unquestioned assumptions in a way I personally think is unbefitting for a philosopher. A couple of choice sections, though.

Towards a New Architecture by Le Corbusier

The ideas in this odd manifesto are interesting, but for someone who speaks of utility so highly it seems almost hypocritical that his writing style should take such great effort to engage with. The introduction refers to the style as ‘staccato’ and I can think of no better word – you have to fight with each sentence and paragraph’s upsetting abruptness.

Ancient Civilizations of the Old World by Charles Keith Maisels

Maisels’ rather academic work carefully looks at the Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Indus, and Chinese civilizations, focusing on the transition from hunter-gathers to statehood. Of particular interest is the section on the Indus, but the whole work is very solid, well-researched, a brimming with graphs, pictures, schemata, drawings, and prudently considered arguments.

The White Rectangle by Kazimir Malevich

The originator of Suprematism (and one of the founders of all abstract art) had some thoughts on film. Some reactionary, not particularly deep, thoughts. Stick to Walter Benjamin.

The Orchard by Saadi

A mixture of tales and autobiography this slim volume of 13th-century wisdom is an interesting read. If possible endeavor to find a translation that preserves the rhyming couplets – although I know of none.

Cuisine & Empire by Rachel Laudan

Very informative, brisk, scholarly and chockfull of interesting anecdotes. I’d long been interested in food history, but never taken the time to delve. So I was pleased to not be disappointed.

Ai Weiwei’s Blog by Ai Weiwei

Much of this translated collection is from 2006, discussing architecture and the role of art in totalitarian China. In 2009, though, the criticism begins, comprising the last fifty pages of the 240 pages of blog entries.

One Two Three Infinity by George Gamow

An odd little work. I can’t recommend it for a few reasons: the science has progressed significantly, the explanations are not elucidating, and, though a small point it stuck in my craw: the pictures half the time are pointless, and half the time are not helpful. It’s remarkable to me that Gamow’s work was so popular. His style of writing is not illuminating.

A History of Rome Under the Emperors by Theodor Mommsen

The first section on the Julio-Claudian emperors was very good – but I picked up the work to know more about what came after Nero. Unfortunately, it gets lost deep in the weeds. Without compelling biographies long dry passages on tax and state treasury details, relatively insignificant frontier wars, and so forth bogs the work down. The final third is buoyed somewhat by the early interactions with the growing power of the Christian church and the biographies of Diocletian, Constantine, and Julian – but not enough. The end feels like a race to the finish, by which point I’d lost all interest.

Cybernetics by Norbert Wiener

About 40 pages of this 200 page volume are indecipherable logarithmic sorts of things. However, the other 160-ish pages are really rather fascinating. Be warned, though: Wiener alights from topic to topic with remarkable agility, from Lewis Carroll to Leibniz, Turning to Margaret Meade, Pavlov to Locke, and Von Neumann to Russell. Some familiarity, therefore, with the Western Canon is a must.


American Indian Stories by Zitkala-Sa

A collection that begins with Dakota Sioux legends, then turns autobiographical in recollections for growing up when Native Americans were being “civilized” at boarding schools, and ending on various political works and poems. I’m glad to have encountered this author.

The Devil to Pay in the Backlands by Joao Guimaraes Rosa

A world-classic, and likely the greatest novel in Brazilian literature, unfortunately this book is very hard to get your hands on. It was only translated into English once, about 70 years ago, and has long been out of print. If you can find it, though, it is definitely worth a read. Rosa’s language is similar to Joyce, in that there’s a rather unique rhythm to adapt to at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s smooth sailing.

History by Elsa Morante

The first chapter of this work drew me in, and it was an engaging read throughout the majority. A Roman family’s struggles to survive World War II – it certainly shares a crowded field, which makes its ability to stand out more remarkable.

Twenty Love Poems and A Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda

The title is a perfectly good description – Neruda is well regarded as one of the finest composers of love poems the world has seen. Precociously he produced this collection at the age of just 19.

The Red and the Black by Stendhal

Continuing my annual tradition of reading at least one piece of French literature from the 1800s – of which there is a great deal to catch up – I had no expectations for Stendhal, or this particular work. What followed surprised me, with a focus almost entirely unlike what I had presumed.

A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul

A sort-of updated Conrad, I think it is important to distinguish Naipaul’s character from the author. The work got a lot of flak for being colonialist, or neocolonialist, but since the main character comes from a colonial heritage…that shouldn’t be too odd of a view for him to have. Overall the work had interesting insights and, in my opinion, is miles away from Achebe’s deft criticisms of Conrad in “An Image of Africa”.

The Charles Men by Verner von Heidenstam

It’s difficult to recommend this work. It deals with Swedish heroes of the Great Northern War, and is written for a Swedish audience. Familiarity is expected, and the passing saga-like references are many. Annotations would be burdensome, however. If not bogged down by missed references, it’s an entertaining read.

Chickweed Wintergreen by Harry Martinson

Continuing the Swedish theme, this collection is the most complete of Martinson’s poems. His arc begins with exotica from his sailing days, then reaches the cosmic, before returning to the everyday observations of his world. But the arc is not heroic – his return only sometimes glimpses the cosmic to which he flew. I think his best poems were from a collection entitled Cicada, published in 1953, just prior to his epic space poem, Aniara (selections of which are included and are quite good). Since Cicada, in full, is not available in English I would recommend this collection for anyone interested in the cosmic-everyday interplay.

Children of Gebelaawi by Naguib Mahfouz

Long, long on my to-read list, this work did not disappoint. Allegorical, but inventive, with a closing section that is on-par with Dostoevsky’s ‘Grand Inquisitor’ for boldness and ingenuity.

The Georgics by Claude Simon

Verging on unreadable. Nice idea – a battle fought on the same place by a Napoleonic ancestor as fought by the author during WWII – but so self-consciously stream-of-consciousness/Faulknerian that it can only be described as poorly rendered.

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

It takes a particularly adept author to write at length, sincerely and unapologetically, about a Pentecostal revival while holding the attention of an atheist reader like me. This book immediately became part of my ‘Essential American Literature’.

The Assistant by Bernard Malamud

This one’s tough. Parts appear on the horizon so early you know what’s going to happen thirty pages in advance, leaving a plot to get through instead of enjoy. But on the other hand it does a nice job with certain aspects of psychological portraiture.

Reeds in the Wind by Grazia Deledda

Little-known Italian novelist in the English-speaking world. Humans = reeds, wind = fate. There you go.

People in the Summer Night by Frans Sillanpaa

A very nice, episodic pastoral novel that covers the happenings of a few ethereal nights: a birth, an engagement, a death, and the artist’s own musings on it all.

The Fall of the King by Johannes V. Jensen

I usually am not fond of characters with implausibly tangled arcs – one person has a son who daughter marries the foe of the other whose child then etc. Jensen manages such an arc, and only once or twice pushes the reader to the point of incredulity. Even without a command of Danish history this sixteenth-century-based story is a nice piece of modernist prose.

The Pilgrim Kamanita by Karl Gjellerup

If you remove 2/3 of the Buddhist-esque (through Danish interpretation) philosophy, this would actually make a good film. Reincarnation, eternal lovers, but unfortunately bad writing – original, but not recommendable.

The Thibaults by Roger Martin du Gard

An underappreciated novel – no doubt due to the scarcity in English editions. In the years leading up to the First World War two brothers and a domineering father take different trajectories to deal with their surroundings and challenges. Sounds rote, but du Gard handles the psychologies as deftly as Dostoevsky’s brothers, and with a remarkable naturalistic clarity.

The Days of His Grace by Eyvind Johnson

Admittedly, all the medieval stories of service to one’s king I’ve read this year are beginning to blend in my mind. Set in the waning years of the eighth century I seem to have traveled backwards in pursuit of this theme: The Charles Men, was set in the early modern period, and The Fall of the King in the high medieval. This time one family’s connection to Charlemagne is explored. Johnson’s Nobel Prize is undoubtedly ignominious – having nominated himself as a member of the Academy – but the novel isn’t bad, and has some nice passages. Not a bad read, but not too likely to leave an impression.

Neuromancer by William Gibson

A book that feels more important than good – lots of interesting concepts. I’ve felt its reverberations throughout media for a long time, but all in all the original work didn’t impress. Too many convoluted unexplained terms and mind-bending concepts obfuscate the Blade Runner-ish plot.

The Peasants: Autumn by Wladyslaw Reymont

A bunch of Polish peasants have petty disputes over acreage, religion, and relationships.

The Complete Stories by Franz Kafka

“Complete” should make one wary. What to say of this collection? It is split it two parts, the longer and the shorter. From the longer, I have long admired ‘In the Penal Colony’ as one of the best short stories ever written. Other highlights from that section include ‘The Hunger Artist’, and ‘Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor’. In general, though, I found the shorter stories to be far better, which account for less than a fifth of the total volume. Some of the longer stories are nigh-unreadable, so perhaps a selection would be best for most casual readers.

Madwomen by Gabriela Mistral

A selection of poems focusing on female perspectives by the acclaimed Chilean Nobel Laureate. As the works go on, as is often the case, the poems mature and become more noteworthy. Particularly adept are her treatments of Greek mythological characters: Antigone, Cassandra, and Clytemnestra.

Les Fleurs Du Mal by Charles Baudelaire (Trans. George Dillon and Edna St. Vincent Millay)

A defining texts of early modernity, the benefit of this translation is that the meter and rhyme is kept – no small feat. The drawback is this leads to a looseness of translation. The edition overcomes this problem with a dual language format, so you may check the opposite page and reassure yourself of Millay's more free-form choices. At its worst the translation comes off as merely dyspeptic, instead of bearing the full weight of Baudelaire's unique "indolence".

Masnavi Books I-III by Rumi (Trans. Jawid Mojaddedi)

I found this translation difficult to bear. The jangly couplets with modern phraseology are likely vastly inferior to the Persian original.

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Doblin

Having seen the Fassbinder adaptation I was surprised by the many differences – most notably the pacing. Doblin’s modernist prose is of a unique type, but it can be grating in the current English translation (by Eugene Jolas). All in all it’s original enough to be rewarding for those both willing to put in the time for 600+ pages, and who are particularly drawn to modernist writing.

Kaddish for a Child Not Born by Imre Kertesz

This slim, but strenuous novella of recursive psychological scrutiny and identity is likely to be worth the effort. It is a difficult prospect to shed new intellectual and emotional light on the ramifications of a childhood and adulthood effected by Auschwitz, but Kertesz manages to do so in an intensely personal fashion.

Graphic Novels

The Planetary Omnibus by Warren Ellis and John Cassady

As a big fan of Ellis’ work on Transmetropolitan I found Planetary a bit oblique. References are deep and left to the viewer to figure out – I had the distinct impression of not getting everything out of it I should have. Sort of like overhearing a bunch of in-jokes, and while you’re able to work out some, you’re very aware of the ones you missed.

Top 5

1.      Les Fleurs du Mal by Charles Baudelaire
2.      Children of Gebelaawi by Naguib Mahfouz
3.      The Devil to Pay in the Backlands by Joao Guimaraes Rosa
4.      Tie! The Red and the Black by Stendhal / People in the Summer Night by Frans Sillanpaa

5.      Cuisine & Empire by Rachel Laudan

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Minor Chords for Christmas

This December has felt extraordinarily un-Christmasy.

I grew up loving Christmas, with a deep abiding faith and wonder. As I am no longer a person of faith it makes the holiday season nostalgic in the Mad Men way:

This nostalgia is potent for me, having returned to just outside of the city where I grew up. Every morning I step outside and see my childhood home across the Bay. At sunset the Western sky casts a shadow that fades to the universal intrigue of city lights.

The view from my apartment.

Christmas is typically an experience that's nostalgic for one's childhood - and for family. For me, the familial aspect has never dominated my feelings. Even when I was young Christmas was about faith. And history.

For I went to school in this building:

And, as a cathedral is designed to do, it awed me. The structure had something medieval that overwhelmed me a child. Those tapestries pictured are original Flemish and Belgian works of art from the Middle Ages. The exterior is based on Notre Dame.

My childhood faith was deeply historical for me, and the legacy of Christendom was the source of much of the appeal and mystery.

There is a tradition, with Christmas, that goes back to the earliest Christmas music we have, from the beginning, of minor chords, and a sorrowful aspect. Those Christmas songs and hymns that are triumphant and celebratory miss the point - the empathy - of the story. Jesus' birth must strike one as tragic - for we know the suffering that must befall him. Indeed, it is a selfish, on-the-knees, weeping sort of ecstasy that would be thankful for the birth of Jesus, seeing Jesus as the alleviation of sins. There is a servile, cringing, component to that rendering.

But the empathetic version, the young man who must suffer and die - whose fate we know through the story - is tragic at birth in the same fashion of the Greek Cassandra. Knowing the future makes the present painful to bear.

So, as I gaze across the Bay to the city of my home, and think, as I have so often done as an adult, how lucky my childhood was - how fortunate those of us who grew up in that privileged decade really were - and how innocent, more so perhaps than any others - I consider the melancholic Christmas songs, ranging across centuries, written and sung by those who understood the essential tragedy of life, the sorrow of our own births foretelling the hardships and sacrifices we all must bear.

Here, then, are five of those minor chord songs that, to me, mean Christmas:

Noel Nouvelet - 15th century

What Child Is This / Greensleeves - 1865

O Come O Come Emmanuel - 1861

The Angel Gabriel - Trad. Basque

Past Thee O'Clock - Trad. English, adapted 1924