Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Year's Resolution #1: Books I Have Read

I wish I'd started this years ago, but better late than never.  This year I resolve to keep a list of all the books I read, along with a bit of commentary to help me remember them, as I tend to forget one book as soon as I pick up the next. 

The following are actually books I read in December, 2010, but I figure they give me a running start.

"A Summer of Hummingbirds" by Christopher Benfey.  Emily Dickinson,  Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the artist Martin Johnson Heade were all caught up in the 19th c. hummingbird craze.  This book details the small literary and artistic world these figures inhabited and explains why hummingbirds were so important to each of them.  I'd never heard of Heade before, but the others are, of course, very familiar.  This book is a pleasure, not because it provides deep analysis, but because it presents novel information and fresh interpretations of old favorites.

"A Presumption of Death" by Jill Paton Walsh & Dorothy Sayers.  Jill Walsh took notes left by Dorothy Sayers after Sayers' death and put them in a novel set during World War II.  Lord Peter is off on a secret mission, while Harriet Vane, his lady-wife, copes with wartime privations and anxieties with her two young sons at Talboys.  This is one of those closed-community mysteries, where suspects are limited to a discrete number of individuals.  I never read mysteries for the plot and don't really care "who-done-it".  What I relish is the atmosphere and the psychology of the characters.  This book describes wartime England, bringing to life a time just before my own birth.  It gives me a glimpse into the world as my parents must have known it, when victory against Hitler was anything but certain, and ordinary people often rose to heroic heights.

"The Birthday Present" by Barbara Vine (aka Ruth Rendell).  This "birthday present" is not your typical necktie or diamond bracelet.  It is, in fact, a kidnapping with erotic overtones.  It concerns the contemporary English middle class and pits "normal" family life against something a bit more decadent.  Vine/Rendell never shies away from sensational material, but her style is so down-to-earth her books never seem truly salacious.  Her characters, at least some of them, tend to go to extremes, showing by contrast the fragility of what most would call normal.

"The Naming of the Dead" by Ian Rankin.  I love Rankin's detective John Rebus.  He is sixty-something in this book, overweight, out of shape, with a bit of a drinking problem.  Imperfect in a word.  But he is clever, dogged, and willing to break rules if that will produce results.  His integrity is impeccable, and he is loyal to his friends.  Maybe it sounds perverse, but I enjoy watching the parallel tracks of the soon-to-be-retired detective: his uncanny ability to see beyond the obvious and his shambolic life.  Two brothers have died, one Rebus's, and the novel is about grief, regret, and the bonds of family, as well as murder most foul and corruption at both the local and the global levels.  The action takes place against the backdrop of the G8 conference of world leaders in Edinburgh, Scotland.  George W. Bush makes a brief appearance when he tumbles off a bicycle and scrapes his knuckles.  And Tony Blair flies in and out, trying to be everywhere at once.  The Iraq war figures in, and the restoration of order that we expect from mystery novels is no guarantee that the world will have the same kind of resolution.

"The Collected Stories" by Mavis Gallant.  Like many Canadian authors, Mavis Gallant has not achieved the recognition she deserves.  Or perhaps it would be more correct to say she is a writer's writer.  I would put her in the same company as William Trevor, Alice Munro, and Lorrie Moore--masters of the short story all.  Gallant is Canadian, but most of her stories take place in Europe or, most often, Paris or provincial France.  I would not read a Gallant story for a neat plot or a clever ending.   I do read her for her atmosphere and her study of broken or wounded characters.  As Lionel Trilling put it, "The world's great literature was not created by a bunch of happy chuckleheads."  Mavis Gallant is rather melancholy, which is perhaps why she appeals to me and my somewhat morbid sensibility.  Unlike Rankin's novel that brings recent world events into focus as a backdrop to its action, Gallant's stories are internal.  Lives unfold beneath the shadows of disappointment and failure.  For some reason, this appeals to me, not because I am sad but because I know that many are, and my sympathies are engaged.  Some lives are blighted; that's a fact.  One of the graces of literature is its finding beauty even in the dark.

"Here's Looking at Euclid" by Alex Bellos.  This book was something of a departure for me.  I usually stick to fiction, history, or biography; "Euclid" is all about mathematics, a subject I avoid whenever possible.  This book won me over right from the start.  It's not about solving problems, and it doesn't ask questions whose answers may be obvious to others but are totally opaque to me.  It didn't make me feel embarrassed by my lack of math skills, which I have been ever since my parents were first called in for a teacher conference when I was in third grade.  Bellos's unique book is a compendium of interesting facts about the origins of numbers, the remarkable things that math can do--whether it be in the form of puzzles or the formulation of technological wonders--and a plethora of mind-blowing information about infinities.  Yes, plural.  He discusses some of the great mathematicians, past and present, from Pythagoras to Euler, as well as "lightning calculators" (those individuals who can compute with huge numbers in their heads in a matter of seconds).  I am no better at solving math problems (beyond simple addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division) than I was before, but I now have a much greater understanding of the appeal of math.  Math is not magic, but this book makes it seem magical.  It contains a world of wonders.