Wednesday, January 9, 2013

what i read.

2012 was a rich year in reading for me. The first half of the year saw texts that mostly related to my dissertation research (i.e. dry and technical), but the second half yielded some substantial and deeply satisfying literature. Here are my favorites, appropriately instagrammed with accompanying beverages.

A Place of Greater Safety
Hilary Mantel
Lingered over alongside a hard cider at the heavenly Montague Book Mill.
If you've read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, then you already know that Hilary Mantel is a genius. A Place of Greater Safety brilliantly tells of the French Revolution through young, flawed and idealistic revolutionaries Robespierre, Danton and the glorious and insufferable Desmoulins (who will forever be one of my favorite literary characters). Astounding in detail, language and wit. The fact that Mantel wrote it at age 23 makes it all the more stunning.

Midnight's Children
Salman Rushdie
Red wine and San Francisco garden tomatoes.
Since college, I've had the goal of reading all of the Man Booker Prize winners, so of course Midnight's Children, the Booker of Bookers, had to be on that list. And holy cats. This is a book to which you must just surrender if you're to make it through. Simply put, it's the story of India's tumultuous early statehood as told by one of the mystically-powerful children born at the stroke of midnight, the same moment at which their country gained independence. But it's not simple. One gets the sense that Rushdie didn't write the book so much as channel it, it is such an inspired, consuming and complicated epic. Worth every bit of the (measurable) patience required.

Number 9 Dream
David Mitchell
A perfectly nice stout at DC's Meridian Pint.
David Mitchell is among the most inventive and surprising writers I know. He's most known for Cloud Atlas and his more recent The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, but this novel is a gem. It tells the story of a teenage boy in Japan who's come to Tokyo to seek out his father, and incredibly blends dream with reality, the seedy and the sublime. Once you finish, this Bookworm interview with Mitchell about the novel and writing in general is a treat.

The Marriage Plot
Jeffrey Eugenides
Cuppa on a cold morning.
A curious thing happens when you graduate from college. You've been guided through four years of deep immersion in political theory, philosophy, Victorian literature, economic modeling. You feel expert and capable, completely prepared to assume a role of considerable responsibility when you graduate - something like, say, getting straight to work on Middle East peace, or writing for the New Yorker or tackling inner city poverty or making a documentary. And you have been led to believe, by encouraging professors and similarly-minded friends that you will do just that. And then you graduate and in your first year, you realize it is nothing like you expected and you are woefully unprepared for any of those tasks and you feel just a bit cheated. And then you begin to wade through the considerably more complex world and profession before you. And it all works out in the end and you're better for it. This is a difficult crisis for many-a-starry-eyed-student (myself included years ago when I first worked in Cambodia and gutted as to why I was making no difference whatsoever) but I love this crisis. It is a terribly productive crisis. Coaching students through this crisis was the best part of my most recent job. Eugenides gets this awkward year and narrates it so beautifully here. Beginning with three college students on the verge of graduation from Brown, it narrates how the ideals they formed through academic theory and personal relationships as college students are applied, explored and challenged as they encounter the complexity of real life (and themselves in it). Mitchell was my favorite character - very near to my heart and own experience. Read it and read Eugenides' recent advice to young writers.   

On Beauty
Zadie Smith
Afternoon tea, stripes on the side.
White Teeth didn't hold my attention, but On Beauty was a treat. Smith has an uncanny ability with dialogue and especially miscommunication and misunderstandings over class, race, gender, cultural nuance - she has empathy for all her characters but bares them completely, too. I devoured it - language, academic plot line and roots in Howards End. Bonus points for giving herself a cameo on page 324 as a "feckless novelist on a visiting fellowship."

As I mentioned above, most of my dissertation-related reading is on the duller side, but one text this year that makes this list was Sergio (originally published as Chasing the Flame) by Samantha Power - the biography of Sergio Vieira de Mello. Sergio is a legendary figure in the UN and humanitarian aid system, fundamental to relief efforts in the Balkans, Cambodia, East Timor, and, finally, in Iraq, where he was killed in 2003. Power's writing is always exquisite, but this story hit especially close. By retelling Sergio's life, she illustrates beautifully - better than anyone else I've read - the incredible complexity of the UN system. The enormous bureaucracy, the constant and often dangerous politics played by member states, the risks, ideals and lives at stake. The flawed but sincere individuals in any institution, many of whom I've encountered in my own work in this field and certainly alongside my husband who is an aid worker himself and often in similar environments and crises. Sergio's life is fascinating and his death is a shocking tragedy, both needfully told. Try it.

1 comment:

  1. I may be backlogged on my RSS reading, but glad to have (eventually) gotten around to reading this. Loved how you paired the beverage with the review with the photos, and of course the implied book recommendations (though, just realized, I've already read three of'em). Anyway, cheers!