Books Read – 2012
***The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks – another interesting series of neurological cases, brilliantly described by Dr. Oliver Sacks. These cases mainly focus around our sense of vision, and the fascinating way the mind integrates it all. In this book, he also describes his own personal vision deficits, mainly the melanoma in his right eye, and the visual problems he experienced after it was treated. I’ve read several of Dr. Sacks’s books, and I enjoy them both from a scientific standpoint and from a human interest standpoint as well. Dr. Sacks lived in the same building as I did, for the past 5 years, until I changed residences. I used to see him in the elevator often, but was never brave enough to introduce myself as a neighbor and a fan of his work. Still, I kinda feel almost as if I know the guy.
**Pulphead: Essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan – Sullivan is a magazine writer, and has written for GQ, Harper’s, and The New York Times. This book is a collection of essays on a wide variety of topics, mainly pop culture. His essays on music are particularly insightful, although I was expecting his essays on Michael Jackson and Guns and Roses to be sort of biting and sarcastic; instead they turned out to be heavy-duty devotional essays. He’s a rabid fan of both. His essays on American blues, and on his sojourn to Jamaica to meet Bunny Wailer were especially enjoyable.
***China Underground by Zachary Mexico – this book is also a series of essays, by a hip American writer who currently lives in New York’s Chinatown and plays in a few rock bands. He’s studied Chinese since he was a teenager, and has traveled and lived in China. In this book, he writes about the diverse subcultures that are currently present or developing in modern China. He interviews all sorts of characters to get a handle on the punk scene, the gay scene, pollution, prostitution, the difficulties facing journalists, to name a few. I bought this book to gain greater insight into modern China, as I plan on vacationing in Beijing and Shanghai later in the year.
*****The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach – what can I say? The hype surrounding the book is very well-deserved. This is Harbach’s first novel, and it’s absolutely wonderful. The writing is just perfect. The characters are so rich and so believable. I was unable to put this book down, breezing through all 500 pages in just a few days. I took this book with me everywhere, reading a quick chapter or two whenever I could. The book rekindled my love of baseball and my nostalgia for my college days. I often caught myself stopping in mid-sentence to admire how clearly and cleverly the writer expressed the thoughts of the characters in the novel. I haven’t enjoyed a book this much since Life of Pi.
***Meet the Mertzes: An unauthorized biography of Vivian Vance and William Frawley – Saw this book on the table of one of the street sellers on the upper west side for $3, and being a big fan of I Love Lucy, I went for it. It turned out to be a very enjoyable read. I had heard that William Frawley (“Fred”) and Vivian Vance (“Ethel”) didn’t like each other, but wow… never thought that he hated her as much as he did! Some of the things he called her were incredibly profane! The book goes into the complicated relationship that Vivian had with Lucille Ball, which was love-hate in many ways. I had no idea how talented Vivian Vance was, and what a nice person she was. When she died, she bequeathed half of the value of her estate to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Fred was a grumpy misogynist, but was very talented. I didn’t think I’d end up liking this book as much as I did. Very entertaining.
****Talk Show: by Dick Cavett – I used to watch Dick Cavett when I was a kid. His show was a little bit before my time, and I was a little too young to fully appreciate his intellect and wit, but reading this collection of his online columns from 2007 to 2010 has brought it back to the forefront. Yes, he’s a little fey, and definitely a bit smug, but his stories and experiences interviewing, Bobby Fischer, Richard Burton, Nixon, Groucho Marx, Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer are all pretty fascinating. He was a bit of a nerd, but somehow he managed to bring out the best in his guests, and much of it is reflected in these little essays.
****Brooklyn by Colm Toibin – Toibin is an Irish author who won the LA Times Book Prize in fiction for The Master, a fictionalized account of the private life of the author Henry James. I read it last year and thought it was fantastic. His latest book, Brooklyn, got rave reviews. It’s about a girl from Ireland who comes to Brooklyn when a priest offers to sponsor her visit. Her coming of age in Brooklyn, and her allegiance to her family back home, and the conflict that threatens the promise of her future, made for some gripping reading. A really enjoyable book, with very memorable characters.
***Factory Girls by Leslie T. Chang – I’m visiting China for vacation in May, so I thought I’d read a few books about modern China. In my favorite bookstore, Idlewyld Books on 19th street between 5th and 6th (they’re a bookstore that specializes in travel books) I found this gem. A NY Times Book Review “Notable Book of the Year”, this book tells the story of China’s migrant workers, primarily through the story of two young women, Min and Chunming, as they try to navigate their way through life on the assembly lines of China’s factories, negotiating the stresses of modern life while trying to retain their roots back home in their farming village. It’s given me great insight in understanding how the mass movement from rural villages to the cities is transforming Chinese society. Although I will likely never cross paths with this world during my brief ten-day visit to China, I feel I have a better of what this part of Chinese society is really like, having read this book.
****We The Animals by Justin Torres – a short but really well-written book about a family from Brooklyn – the father, who is Puerto Rican, the mother who is white, and their three young boys, told from the perspective of the middle boy. Their home life is chaotic, as the father struggles to find work, the mother works the graveyard shift, and the boys get into all sorts of mischief. The writing is compelling and absorbing, even though there is seemingly not much of a plot, until the end, where it turns into a shocking coming-of-age novel. This is a very moving novel.
***Role Models by John Waters – The latest book penned by the twisted Baltimorean filmmaker is a hilarious series of essays in which he lavishes praise on some of his favorite people, his “role models” whose lives he admires and respects. People like Johnny Mathis, Little Richard, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, and a few crazy characters from the Baltimore bar scene. Having lived in Baltimore for nine years (and having met John Waters twice while living there), I found the book pretty amusing. He’s definitely an acquired taste.
*****A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon – this book was written by the author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, a book that won many accolades and was absolutely fantastic. You’d think that would be a pretty hard act to follow, but somehow he’s managed to do it. I loved this book. Like “The Art of Fielding”, Haddon has created a cast of very richly drawn British characters, members of a family that is falling apart yet is somehow managing to come together. The book was frequently hilarious, always entertaining, with a very satisfying ending. I loved it.
**Lost on Planet China by J. Maarten Troost – in preparation for my trip to China in May, I read this book by Maarten Troost. It’s a tongue-in-cheek, very witty description of what one can expect traveling to China today. Although I’m only going to Beijing and Shanghai (two cities that he comments on, extensively), I loved reading about his adventures as he crisscrossed China (mostly by himself), and his comments on the incredible pollution, the penchant that the Chinese have for hacking up phlegm onto sidewalks everywhere, and some notable (and horrifying) meals he ate. A lighthearted but eye-opening look at China in the 21st century.
*****Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick – this is a really fascinating, incredibly well-written account of the lives of six North Korean citizens, written over a 15 year period. North Korea is the most repressive, totalitarian regime on Earth, and like most Americans, I knew very little about what life there must be like, until I read this book. It’s hard to describe the poverty, the struggles, the fears that these people go through; it’s just too hard to fathom. I didn’t think book like this would be so compelling, but I found that I couldn’t put it down. These poor people are brainwashed from the moment they’re born, in a land where there is no internet, no access to the outside world, where displays of affection are punished, informants are rewarded, and a little offhand remark can send you to the gulag for life. As the book progresses, I found myself desperately rooting for these people to survive, to defect, to break away from the oppression they lived with every day. This book was riveting – the best non-fiction book I’ve read this year.
*Amrita by Banana Yoshimoto – I’ve been a fan of Yoshimoto’s for years, ever since reading her charming, quirky debut, Kitchen. I’ve read all of her other books over the years. A few were excellent (Lizard, Goodbye Tsugumi, Asleep); the rest were fair (N.P., Hardboiled & Hard Luck). This, her longest book, was rumored to be an excellent one. This was not the case. In fact, it was really horrible. I can’t believe the author of such an endearing book like Kitchen could write such mindless, ridiculous drivel. Ludicrously unrealistic characters, wacky dialogue, silly UFO/ghost mumbo-jumbo… it’s all in here. Reading this book was a chore. For Banana neophytes, get Kitchen, and skip this one, big-time.
****Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden – North Korea tried to hide from the world the fact that it has several prisoner camps that are essentially concentration camps for those citizens convicted of crimes against the state. In fact, you don’t have to be guilty of the crime; if someone in your family commits a crime, you’re guilty by association, for three generations. This book is an account of the only prisoner to have been born into one of these camps (the notorious Camp 14) and to have escaped and survived to tell the tale. It’s an incredibly harrowing tale of unspeakable brutality, impressively documented by the reporter Blaine Harden. I read the entire book in one sitting on the plane ride back from China. It was that gripping. I think I’m done with books about North Korea for a while. Too depressing.
****Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James, Taylor, CSNY, and the Lost Story of 1970. I thought I’d give this book a try, as I’m a fan of three of the four musicians in the title. (Not a big fan of James Taylor). The book turned out to be a very enjoyable read. The author nicely wove in the political events of the era into the story of the four musical groups, giving the stories more relevance than you’d get in just a music biography. It was great to hear about the making of Let it Be, Bridge over Troubled Water, Déjà vu, and Sweet Baby James, and the internal strife in the groups whose members wanted to have control over their own careers. Recommended for old farts like myself who still think the music of that era is the best that was ever made.
**Filthy by Robrt Pela – this is a short, but pretty funny and informative book about the filmmaker John Waters, his wacky cast of characters, and the making and motivation behind his very twisted films. The book takes you through all of Waters’s films, and describes how he met Divine, how his films were received, the crazy innovative ways he promoted his films, and more. There’s one chapter that gives a pretty good analysis of the common themes running through Waters’s films; it’s something I knew subconsciously, but it was helpful to have it explained so clearly. Definitely enhances one’s appreciation of this very unconventional filmmaker.
*****Enduring Love by Ian McEwan. Ian McEwan is one of my favorite writers. His last book, Solar, was magnificent. I read Amsterdam, which got me hooked, and then read Atonement, Saturday, and On Chesil Beach, and each was also spectacular. I came across Enduring Love, the novel he wrote just before Amsterdam, in a used bookstore, and decided to see if it was as great as his last five. It is, spectacularly so. After the first chapter, you’re drawn in completely and can’t put it down. He is such a masterful writer. There aren’t too many writers that make me sit and wait anxiously until their next book comes out, but McEwan is one of them. The plot: while on a picnic with his wife, the main character witnesses a ballooning accident in progress. He and several other witnesses rush over to help, but tragedy cannot be averted, and one of his fellow good Samaritans is killed in the attempt to stop the accident. At the scene of the mishap, one of the other helpers has a conversation with the main character, and he becomes convinced that the two now share a special bond. He then relentlessly pursues the main character, obsessively stalking him. Eventually, things come to a head in a very intense confrontation that had me on the edge of my seat. Another spectacular book from this truly brilliant writer.
** The Velvet Rage by Alan Downs, PhD. This book is subtitled “Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World”. Every now and then I like to read some of these “self-help” books, just to see if they can offer any insight as to how to improve on my already enjoyable life. The blurb says that the book outlines the three distinct stages of emotional well-being for gay men. I figured what the heck, let’s see what he has to say. Well, my first instincts were right: the book didn’t have much to offer me. It turned out to be more geared toward people who may have issues with shame, acceptance and happiness. At this point in my own life, I’m more content and satisfied than I’ve ever been, and although the book is probably very useful for its intended audience, I just found it tedious, as very little of it directly applied to me. I’m a pretty lucky guy, I guess, to not need this book
***The Central Park Five by Sarah Burns . This book chronicles the horrible rape and beating of the “Central Park jogger”, an infamous crime committed in NYC in the 1980s. The book goes into details about the crime, focusing on the accusations against, and forced confessions of, the teenagers who were in the park at the time of the crime. Although these kids were in the park at the time, and were involved in some criminal activity that evening, they were not involved in the brutal rape that occurred. Regardless, the city was out for blood, and five boys who falsely confessed to the crime were convicted and served jail sentences before the actual rapist was caught. The book nicely chronicles a dark chapter in NYC’s history, and the racism that was deeply inherent in the system, and the city, during that time. A disturbing read, but fascinating.
**The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles. Supposedly the best “travel writing” book ever written, according to a post on Budget Travel’s website. I was familiar with Paul Bowles, but had never read anything of his, and being a travel buff, I thought this would be a good book to check out. While I did like some of the passages in the book, ultimately I was disappointed. The book felt dated. Granted, it was written in 1949, but I’ve read many old books that were timeless; you felt as if you were reading something contemporary, and the stellar reviews led me to believe that this book would be like that. Sadly, this wasn’t the case (in my opinion). Many parts of the book were written beautifully, but the lack of any plot left me a little bored by the last third of the book. I discovered on Netflix that there’s a movie of the book, starring Debra Winger. Not sure if I’m going to check it out or not.
****god is not Great by Christopher Hitchens. I’ve been reading Christopher Hitchens’ essays for years now, in Vanity Fair. I finally decided to read this book. I’ve been an atheist for decades, and I’d seen a few film clips and snippets of him on television shows arguing the case for atheism, but I hadn’t read any of his columns on the topic. I figured that someone as brilliant and articulate as Hitchens would surely tackle this subject with all the wisdom and intellect it deserves. Of course, he did not disappoint. It’s nice to have someone completely validate all of the things you’ve felt for years. I just purchased his book “Mortality” this afternoon. The world has lost one of its greatest intellectuals when he passed away this year.
****God, No by Penn Jillette. A perverse, hilarious defense of atheism. Jillette provides a litany of irreverent thoughts and stories from his life and career about the absurdity of religion and how happy he is as an atheist. I’ve been a fan of his magic and comedy for years (I even chatted with him after one of his shows), and he doesn’t mince words when it comes to the things he believes in, and especially the things he doesn’t.
****Mortality, by Christopher Hitchens. I read this book on a Sunday, in one sitting. It’s a collection of Hitchens’ final essays, those that he wrote after his diagnosis of esophageal cancer in 2010. He offers his unique insight into his personal struggle with the treatment, the pain, and the meddlesome people who, perpetually annoyed by his fervent atheism, continued to pester and insult him as he coped with his illness. Written with wit and brilliance, I read it in one long sitting.
**Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris. I’d read all of David Sedaris’s books, but held out reading this one because of a few negative reviews I had read. Normally, Sedaris writes hilarious essays describing real experiences in his life, mainly involving his wacky family. This book is a collection of short tales, told from the viewpoint of a variety of different animals. It’s certainly amusing to hear very human-like dialog coming from owls and storks and hippos, but the stories themselves, weren’t very amusing, and many had anti-climactic endings. I hope this book was an aberration and that Sedaris gets back to the wry humor of his usual essays.
****Who I Am by Pete Townshend – I’ve been a Who fan for decades and have always admired Pete’s lyrics, guitar playing, and singing. After reading his book, I admire him even more. I learned, reading this book, that Pete devotes a great deal of his time and his money to a variety of charities and causes. It’s heartwarming to hear about the warmth he feels for Roger Daltrey, and tales of the genesis of his two big concept pieces, Tommy and Quadrophenia are fascinating. I wish he had spent more time talking about some of the individual songs and albums, but that’s okay. Pete is totally, brutally honest and open in this book, and I love that he says he writes his songs with his fans in mind. He’s not just doing it for himself, like many artists do. He’s doing it for his fans. Hearing this, and knowing how much time I spent listening to The Who over the years, buying the albums, going to the concerts, I feel like all of my fondness of for Pete and the Who was totally justified. I didn’t get fooled again. I didn’t get fooled at all. Pete’s the real deal.
***Every Patient Tells a Story by Lisa Sanders, M.D. – Dr. Sanders is the New York Times Magazine author of the column “Diagnosis”, in which she presents challenging medical cases and their interesting diagnoses and outcomes. As a veterinarian, I love the art of diagnosis. In her book, Dr. Sanders talks about the expertise and intuition that is involved in making a diagnosis, and the real life consequences of failing to figure out why a particular patient is sick.
***Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy. This book covers the entire history, biology, prevention and treatment of the notorious rabies virus. It’s a fascinating read, especially the chapters about Louis Pasteur’s brilliant and pioneering research and subsequent development of the rabies vaccine. The chapters about the desperate attempts to treat those who were afflicted with the virus, and the story of the few who have survived were gripping; I missed my subway stop because I so fully engrossed in the tale. The book is a little dry in places, but overall, a really interesting read.