This was the year of long books, at least more so than most years. I finally read all 963 pages of Anna Karenina, which was wonderful — sprawling, fast-moving, and intersecting all sorts of topics from marriage to education. Much of its interpersonal dynamics rely on subtleties of gaze and tone — were people really so perceptive, or is this Tolstoy’s stylization?
My favorite fiction read in the past year was Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, about 700 pages, an amazing comic novel about horrible people in early 1980s New York. I liked it so much I then read another book by Wolfe, which makes it into the non-fiction best-of list, below.
Books other people like, that I don’t
I read several books this past year that were awful, despite being considered great by many people. These include Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, which I found insufferably boring. The first part is about a quartet of academic literary critics, which is a good indication that it will be pretentious and dull. I started the second part, but couldn’t bring myself to finish. In total I read about 200 out of 900 pages. 2666 is, however, on many lists of masterpieces of the twenty-first century. I did manage to finish Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West, but I was skimming the second half. I found this one pretentious also, an extremely violent Western filled with ornate vocabulary whose purpose seemed solely to bludgeon the reader with how special the prose is. Again, lots of people love it (though lots hate it as well), and I wonder if I should revisit it someday, perhaps with a dictionary in hand. I don’t know if the book, Soul of the Border, by Matteo Righetto, which I picked up randomly from the new book shelf at the library, is actually widely liked, but the text on the back claims it’s an international sensation. It is awful. It’s full of the worst prose I’ve read in a while, including such gems as:
The mountain was lit up by the warm early-November sun, and to Jole’s eyes it seemed so calm and impassive and yet so powerful, so treacherous, so formidable.
As only mountains can be.
As only some mountains can be.
I don’t think it’s meant as comedy.
Books for kids
As in past years, some of the best books I’ve read have been books read aloud, in 2019 to my 9-10 year old. The best of these was Terry Pratchet’s Wee Free Men, about a young witch-to-be and her adventures with the Wee Free Men, small blue people with a fondness for drinking, fighting, and stealing. It’s funny, fast-moving, and surprisingly deep. We read the whole five-book series (listening to #4 as an audiobook). None are are as good as the first book, but A Hat Full of Sky (#2) and I Shall Wear Midnight (#4) are very good.
Also notable were Tolkiens’s Return of the King, Brian Jacques’ Redwall, and Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. Tom Sawyer is a very strange book, and is not nearly as good as Huckleberry Finn, As L.P. Hartley wrote, “The past is a foreign country,” and here it seems like another planet altogether — the kids almost feral, and everyone doing very dumb things like fighting constantly and wandering around in large, labrynthine cave systems.
We also read The Sword in the Stone, book 1 of T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, a retelling of the King Arthur story. It’s excellent — a mix of adventure and meditative explorations of the natural world. Some parts are full of words I don’t understand — the elaborate vocabulary of falconry, for example — one reads and absorbs the general idea.
Other fiction worth briefly noting
Lincoln in the Bardo was great, short and poetic. L.A. Confidential was very good, a sordid story of crime and corruption, and like a few other books noted above it was at times incomprehensible, here due to a mix of slang and a terse writing style that was nonetheless enjoyable. The 2017 novel Underground Airlines, a thriller set in an alternate present in which slavery is still legal in parts of the U.S., was entertaining.
After re-watching the excellent Treasure of the Sierra Madre I learned that it was based on a novel written by the mysterious “B. Traven,” whose identity is unknown. I was inspired to read two of Traven’s novels novel about the mistreatment and de facto enslavement of Indians in Mexico in the early 1900s, Government, and The Carreta. They are almost unbearably earnest and didactic, but are interesting. The Carreta is by far the better of the two.
My favorites were Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou (2018), and Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968). Bad Blood is the now well-known story of Theranos, the biotech startup headed by Elizbeth Holmes that was, to put it mildly, a giant fraud. There was nothing clever about the scam, just straight-up deceit to investors, regulators, and potential customers, claiming that Theranos could perform amazing diagnostics on just a drop of blood. How could this go on for a decade? It’s fascinating, though sad, to read about. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is Wolfe’s account of Ken Kesey, the Merry Pranksters, and the psychedelic movement. It’s rambling but necessarily so — a straightforward account couldn’t capture the surrealism of the events and the characters.
I really liked Coromandel: A Personal History of South India by Charles Allen (2017), though I’m biased in favor of the topic! It’s rare to find books on the history of South India, despite its amazing cultural richness. Allen’s book is excellent, touching on topics as diverse as the enormous but transient influence of Buddhism and Jainism, the early history of Muslims in Kerala, the still underexplored (and sadly mistreated) ancient architecture of Tamil kingdoms, and more.
Others worth noting: Educated by Tara Westover (2018) was fascinating but frustrating, a memoir of the author’s bizarre and disturbing upbringing by a paranoid and extremely abusive family, and (very briefly described) her subsequent success in college. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs (2014) is the story of a smart, extremely hard working African-American man growing up in a poor and crime-ridden New Jersey neighborhood, excelling in school, excelling in college at Yale where he majors in Molecular Biochemistry and Biophysics, and dying a violent death back in New Jersey about ten years later. The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery (2015) is mostly a personal history of the author’s exploration of octopuses, with a bit of science tossed in.
I only read two this year, none of which are worth writing about.
There aren’t many films I saw in the past year that really stand out. Perhaps the best movie that I hadn’t already seen before was Ford v. Ferrari, as Wikipedia calls it a “sports action drama film” about the efforts of automobile designer Carroll Shelby and driver Ken Miles to build and race a Ford car to win the 1966 Le Mans race. Beyond that, it’s a story of idiosyncratic individuals battling corporate bureaucracy. Beyond that, it’s a story about creativity and vision, in an indifferent and often cruel universe. It’s also about cars racing fast.
I heeded last year’s lesson to avoid science fiction and read only two books in this genre, one very good and one awful. This year’s lesson seems to be not to shy away from very long books, more than 500 pages. We’ll see what I get absorbed by next year!
A rhinoceros, the first draft of a painting whose second version looks much better, but I’m saving that for other things.
— Raghuveer Parthasarathy, January 4, 2020