As 2010 comes to a close (with over a foot of snow and more coming down outside my window), I’m looking back over some of the books and such I’ve enjoyed; there have been some great and thought-provoking reads in the last year, and some that were pretty good but didn’t quite hit their potential. All in all, though, a good year for reading. Here are some of the books and articles that have made their way to these pages this year.
I closed 2009 and started 2010 with Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, the story of a German couple’s quiet but daring campaign against Hitler. The novel is gripping as both a moral exploration of the German people under Hitler, and as a police procedural; and even the back story of the novel, and of Fallada’s own life under the Nazis, is a harrowing tale.
In the Spring, I was inspired by a series of posts by Ta-Nehisi Coates on The Atlantic Magazine’s web site to learn more about life under another repressive regime: the plantation system in the South during the Confederacy. Andrew Ward’s The Slaves’ War is drawn from the words of the people who survived the war, particularly from a rich collection of interviews with ex-slaves and their descendants from the 1930s. The slaves emerge as actors in their own liberation with some ambivalence toward both sides of the Civil War.
Also in the Spring I read Empire of Illusion by Chris Hedges and Ill Fares the Land by Tony Judt, two books which complement each other well. Hedges’ book is a Jeremiad against a cruel, crass, and corporate-controlled culture, with an all-too-brief ode on the “human capacity for love.” Judt, in contrast, is largely level-headed and reasonable, offering a history of the decline of the welfare state, politics’ retreat from “the common good,” and the uncritical acceptance of a rhetoric of perpetual market growth. A combination of Hedges’ passion and Judt’s analysis, bolstered by the empiricism of The Spirit Level, seems a good, if unlikely-to-be-followed, way forward.
I also made a dent in my stack of New Yorker magazines, though they’ve crept up on me again in the last couple months. (The current blizzard might be a great opportunity to revisit that project.) Of the stories and articles I read–an Italo Calvino fugue, a report on free diving, and stories by Joshua Ferris and William Styron–I think it was Sherman Alexie’s War Dances that I enjoyed the most. Alexie is always true to his voice, and voice matters a lot.
Marc Jacobson’s The Lampshade also deals in voices–ranging from a blues historian to Holocaust deniers to museum curators to a Santaria priestess–to tell the story of a voiceless object, a lampshade that appears to have been made from human skin of unconfirmed provenance. Jacobson pulls together the Holocaust, Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, the Jim Crow South, and Mardi Gras to tell the story of this lampshade and his quest to find it a home.
Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is less a time-travel sci-fi tale than a family drama about a son searching for his secretive father’s inner life. It uses the tropes of science fiction in some interesting and original ways. But it has some stylistic quirks, tics, foibles, follies, that drove me a little nuts, batty, crazy, around the bend. Another round of editing might have helped.
The last book I’ll likely get up on this site this year, given my holiday and other obligations, is The Word for World is Forest by Ursula LeGuin. It’s a story of colonial exploitation not unlike “Avatar,” but without that movie’s colonial baggage: LeGuin’s exotic green aliens don’t require a human helper to stage their revolt; indeed, their only human ally turns out to be a bumbler who does more harm than good. A LeGuin novel, even a very short one like this (a slightly different version won the 1973 Hugo Award for best novella), lives up to the promise of speculative fiction: a rich collection of ideas, an extended thought experiment, and a human moral drama in an alien place.