Saturday, January 01, 2011

My Year in Books
The other day I made a list of everything I read in 2010, as best I could remember; this is something I often do toward the end of December, and I can usually come up with about two-thirds of the list on my own before going back to threads on or email with friends to fill in the rest. (Of course, the ones I remember without any prompt are usually the best of the bunch.) What surprised me was how heavily I turned toward the novels in 2010, maybe as a result of having a big-boy job for the first time in about five years and just wanting/needing escape from that (or, for a less psychological explanation, because I was reading a fair amount of policy non-fiction--well, hopefully non-fiction--on a more or less everyday basis, so that's where I found the balance).

The list below includes only titles I finished; as usual, there were at least a handful I started and abandoned, whether because of boredom or a sense that I'd gotten what I was going to get out of them. A few, including relatively heavy non-fiction titles like Schumpeter's Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (which I barely started) and Bobbitt's The Shield of Achilles (which I got more than halfway through and found totally brilliant), I hope to get back to. This is in rough but not perfect chronological order.

Gun With Occasional Music (Jonathan Lethem)
Under the Dome (Stephen King)
The Forever War (Joe Haldeman)
Shadow Country (Peter Matthiessen)
The Savage Detectives (Roberto Belano)
The Brooklyn Follies (Paul Auster)
The Bullpen Gospels (Dirk Hayhurst)
Let the Great World Spin (Colum McCann)
Anathem (Neal Stephenson)
The Passage (Justin Cronin)
Then We Came to the End (Joshua Ferris)
A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter M. Miller Jr)
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (David Mitchell)
You Don't Love Me Yet (Lethem)
The Virgin Suicides (Geoffrey Eugenidies)
Netherland (Joseph O'Neill)
Tokyo Year Zero (David Peace)
The Night Gardener (George Pelecanos)
An Artist of the Floating World (Kazuo Ishiguro)
Motherless Brooklyn (Lethem)
The Ministry of Special Cases (Nathan Englander)
The Four Fingers of Death (Rick Moody)
Solar (Ian McEwan)
The Clinton Tapes (Taylor Branch)
Husker Du: The Story of the Noise Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock (Andrew Earles)

(I just went on the Brooklyn Library site to see if there were other titles I've forgotten. Unfortunately, unless you tell them to do so, they only preserve your past selections when there's a fine attached. I evidently owe them $7.50 for various failures to return or renew over the last several years. So be it...)

The best of these? Under the Dome (Stephen King getting back to what he does best--the plot-driven epic), Shadow Country (superb historical fiction set in a place and time--Florida at the turn of the last century--I had little knowledge of, with epic themes and very strong characterizations), The Savage Detectives (the book "On the Road" could have been, if Kerouac were a much better writer, a less self-involved person, and a true connoisseur of literature), The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (David Mitchell is, basically, God), and Solar (an effective fusion of McEwan's misanthropy, e.g. Amsterdam, and tenderness, e.g. Saturday). The ones I enjoyed least were probably "Then We Came to the End," which was replete with unlikable characters and wasn't remotely as funny as the author evidently thought it was, and "Let the Great World Spin," which was the literary equivalent of listening to U2 at their most self-important--there's something to it, but you just can't get past the self-satisfaction and just enjoy the damn thing.

The last two books here are, of course, non-fiction. Taylor Branch is one of my heroes: his three-volume civil rights history, "America in the King Years," is up there with Caro's "The Power Broker," DeParle's "American Dream" and Ben Cramer's "What it Takes" as the best social/political history I've ever read. He knew Bill Clinton when they were both young activists in the late '60s and early '70s, though they lost touch after working on the McGovern campaign together in 1972. Twenty years later, Clinton reached out to ask Branch to be his secret White House diarist through the vehicle of taped conversations about then current events. During his eight years in office, they met about 80 times; Clinton kept the tapes, but Branch made a second set of recordings while driving back to his home in Baltimore after their discussions to capture their content. Those tapes are the basis for this book (evidently the originals informed Clinton's own memoir, which I now kind of want to read).

To read Branch's book as an attempt at the history of the Clinton presidency entirely misses the point. All that's here is what Clinton said on the tapes, distilled through Branch's own memory. Their friendship shadows the material as well: Branch tries to balance that role with his duty to history as he sees it in the role of interlocutor, and steers away from (or at least rarely writes about here) the Lewinsky scandal and related matters. If you're interested in the Balkan wars, battles over the federal budget, and efforts to make Mideast peace, you'll get much more out of this than if your primary lens to view the '90s has to do with White House sexcapades. It's clear that Branch and Clinton themselves see those subjects as more historically significant; it's a perspective I sympathize with and share, but of course Clinton's personal failings limited his effectiveness as a political leader--a truth the president himself acknowledges.

What comes across above all else are, one, Clinton's political brilliance, and two, just how fucking hard the presidential job is. I was repeatedly struck by the similarities between the challenges he faced more than ten years ago and what Obama has been grappling with since he took office: the nihilism of the Republicans, the refusal of the liberals to fully engage with reality, the stunning vapidity of the media. Honestly, the Branch book is a depressing read in this light, because you get the sense both that the problems are far more intractable--the Republicans more vicious, the Democrats more feckless, the media more polarized and sensationalistic, the deficits staggeringly larger--and that Obama, for all his fine qualities, isn't close to the political animal that Clinton was and is. Of course, he also thankfully lacks Clinton's outsized appetites and weaknesses--which certainly contributed to Gore's "loss" in the 2000 election and many of our subsequent problems--and it's hard to imagine Obama endlessly complaining about his unfair treatment at the hands of the media the way Clinton did to Branch. (To be fair, he probably has much less grounds for complaint; I think the mainstream press really did dislike Clinton, where Obama's problems with them have to do not with their take of him so much as the incentives toward sensationalism and conflict. During the very productive lame-duck session of Congress I was consistently amazed and annoyed by how everything was presented as "a potential win (or loss) for the president"--as if that mattered more than the effects of ending DADT, or ratifying New START, or passing the DREAM Act.)

I have a whole thing on the Husker Du book too but will post that later, or tomorrow. Beats writing about football...

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