Sunday, December 6, 2015

Books of 2015

The "best of" lists for 2015 have begun! bklynbiblio readers will recall that "Books of" is probably one of my favorite posts of the year (here are 2014's and 2013's posts, for instance). While my post is somewhat an assessment of The New York Times Book Review's annual 100 Notable Books, it is more for me a way to look back on the books I read over the year and share/suggest/comment on my favorites (and as you will see at the end of this post, one very much not-so-favorite). This year's NYT list, unfortunately, doesn't inspire me too much, although a few works look interesting. In non-fiction, Mary Beard's sweeping history of ancient Rome SPQR promises to be a great read, but I may have to wait a while to read that one. (I follow Beard, who is a professor of classics at Cambridge, on her blog A Don's Life.) In fiction two books seem promising: How to Be Both by Ali Smith (combined tale of a modern teenage girl and a Renaissance painter) and The Incarnations by Susan Barker (a Chinese cab driver discovers all of his past lives through a series of letters). I was surprised that Toni Morrison's new novel God Help the Child made it on the list because the review artist Kara Walker gave in April lamented the lack of literary beauty and charge that we have come to relish from Morrison's work. But since I do read Morrison (I read Love [2003] this year), that book will go on my my future reading list, I'm sure. Paula Hawkins' debut novel The Girl on the Train made it on Amazon's top list, but not the NYT list; that is definitely going on my list of books to read as well.

Over the past year since I last blogged on this topic, I have read 29 books. Around this time last year I was reading Shearer West's Portraiture [2004], an excellent overview on this subject in painting, and Agatha Christie's Curtain [1975], an excellent wrap-up mystery and the last of my many years of reading her novels in the order they were published. This year I took on two biographies in preparation for my recent conference paper I gave in Pittsburgh. One was the life of the writer/diplomat James Justinian Morier and his brothers (Ottoman and Persian Odysseys by Henry McKenzie Johnston [1998]), and the second was the translated edition of the Mirza Abul Hasan Khan's travel journal to London (A Persian at the Court of King George 1809-10 by Margaret Morris Cloake [1988]). I never thought I would find Anglo-Persian politics during the Napoleonic Wars so interesting, but it has been eye-opening to learn about it in the context of our current strained relations with Iran and other parts of the Middle East today. In a more emotional vein, I tackled Joan Didion's powerful The Year of Magical Thinking [2006], her powerful, personal struggle with death, grief, mourning, survival, and ultimately living.

One of the books I am currently reading merges my interest in biography with biography: Richard Wendorf's Sir Joshua Reynolds: The Painter in Society [1996], which so far is an interesting psychological exploration into understanding one of the greatest portrait painters of the 18th century. A great art read this year was a book by one of my favorite contemporary artists, Grayson Perry: Playing to the Gallery: Helping Contemporary Art in Its Struggle to Be Understood [2014]. The artist's frequently-hilarious cartoons accompany his lucid explanations as to how conceptual art has maligned the perception of art and how it has undermined the ideology of craft. This book is a great, entertaining read for anyone who has wondered "Why don't I understand all this contemporary art thing, and why is is so shockingly expensive?" An intriguing contrast to this--which, not surprisingly, I found less enjoyable but still insightful--was Ways of Curating by the uber-curator Hans Ulrich Obrist [2014]. Despite his insistence on how it is the work of art that should speak for itself in an exhibition, Obrist's jet-setting curatorial life (he literally travels the world overseeing exhibitions everywhere) clearly imposes his persona on the curatorial/exhibition experience, ultimately framing the perception and reception of art, no matter what he claims.

In addition to the biography of Reynolds, I have made the great foray into the literary masterpiece Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy [1877], the book cover for which is above. Lately, my running commentary to the frequent question "What are you doing for the holidays?" has been "I'm reading Anna Karenina." And I mean it! (Thanks goes out to my cousins the M+JBs for giving me this book as a gift last Christmas!) The best novel I read this year was Kate Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum [1995]. I discovered Atkinson last year when I read Life After Life, which had been on the 2013 NYT list, and I truly loved that book. This earlier novel won her the Whitbread Book of the Year award and recounts in witty, original prose not only the life of Ruby Lennox (from the time of her conception) but the troubled lives of her maternal ancestry and relatives from the late 1800s to just before the new millennium. I look forward to reading more of Atkinson, including her new book this year A God in Ruins, a sequel to Life After Life. A few of my other favorite fiction reads this year were: The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin [2012], a short novel that considers the life of Christ from his mother's perspective; the young-adult novel Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs [2011]; and The Minotaur by Barbara Vine [2005], an exploration of autism long before it was ever diagnosed for what it is today. I also read Portraits at an Exhibition by Patrick Horrigan [2015] and published a review in The Gay & Lesbian Review. And finally I will now wrap up this post by noting, with unbelievable dread, that I also read early this year The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt [2013]. This book won lots of awards including the Pulitzer, but I absolutely detested it. I've since discovered that people who read this book are in split camps: you either love it or hate it. From my perspective, the first 200 pages and the last 50 pages are the best parts of the book. The entire center of more than 300 pages was some of the most tedious, unrealistic, plot-less storytelling I have ever read. What angered me most was that this beautiful painting, that is supposed to be the focal point of the entire novel, dissipates into an invisible shadow and never reappears until it becomes a catalyst to wrap up a ridiculous plot. I can understand why some people loved this book because of its attempt at contemporary realism, but personally I could not wait to finish it. Sorry, Ms. Tartt. I doubt I will ever read another of your books.

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