Below is the list of the best books of this year selected by the New York Times; one of them was recommended by Nigel Warburton in his Five Books post about the best popular philosophy books.) If you’ve read any of these, weigh in below. I provide the Times‘s brief synopsis and a link to their reviews. I’ve also put asterisks before the two books I want to read. So many books and so little time. . .
As always at the end of the year, I ask readers what books they’ve enjoyed the most (they need not have been published this year). Do weigh in below; this thread is often a good source of information for both me and the readers.
My reading was delayed by my trip to Singapore and Hong Kong, but I’ve just finished The Master and Margarita, a splendid novel about Soviet Russia (and the crucifixion of Jesus) written by Mikhail Bulgakov between 1928 and 1940, but not published until 27 years after the author’s death (1940). It’s a novel that can be read on several levels: a satire of the Soviet system and of Russian literati, a collision between Soviet atheism and religion (worked out through recurring flashbacks to Pontius Pilate and his treatment of Jesus), and a cracking good story, one of the earliest serious novels using magical realism—long preceding Marquez and Rushdie. In this case the magic is enacted by a visit of Satan (named Woland) and his retinue to Moscow, where they proceed to drive the whole city into a frenzy using black magic. One of Woland’s retinue is a huge black cat named Behemoth, who has a penchant for pistols, vodka, and food, and gilds his whiskers. While Satan is portrayed as evil, he also has his beneficent side, doing favors for the Master and Margarita, an author who’s writing a book on Pontius Pilate and the married woman who falls in love with him. It’s a modern classic. (Thanks to reader Nicole Reggia for sending the book.)
I’m now about 100 pages from the end of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer (about 1100 pages long), which I read after recommendations by readers on a thread like this one. It’s a page-turner, and though I’m told by others that it’s now outdated, it’s still a fascinating read—especially because Shirer was a war correspondent who lived in Nazi Germany until 1940, and also combed through the Nazi government’s papers for his narrative. One of the striking aspects of the novel is how often the whole Nazi enterprise could have been easily derailed before and during the war by politicians and disaffected German Army officers. But of course the laws of physics deemed otherwise. Also impressive was Hitler’s command of military strategy and human psychology, which finally went to ground when he decided to invade Russia and then failed to recall his troops when they were overwhelmed by the Soviet Army. The two-front war doomed the Reich to its wretched end.
What will I read next? I have no idea, and am open to suggestions. I prefer nonfiction, but certainly don’t abjure all fiction.
The NYT selections, five fiction and five nonfiction (sadly, no science):
*A finalist for the National Book Award, Mahajan’s novel — smart, devastating and unpredictable — opens with a Kashmiri terrorist attack in a Delhi market, then follows the lives of those affected. This includes Deepa and Vikas Khurana, whose young sons were killed, and the boys’ injured friend Mansoor, who grows up to flirt with a form of political radicalism himself. As the narrative suggests, nothing recovers from a bomb: not our humanity, not our politics, not even our faith.
Read our review of “The Association of Small Bombs”
Propelled by a vision that is savage, brutal and relentless, McGuire relates the tale of an opium-addicted 19th-century Irish surgeon who encounters a vicious psychopath on board an Arctic-bound whaling ship. With grim, jagged lyricism, McGuire describes violence with unsparing color and even relish while suggesting a path forward for historical fiction. Picture a meeting between Joseph Conrad and Cormac McCarthy in some run-down port as they offer each other a long, sour nod of recognition.
Read our review of “The North Water”
In Han’s unsettling novel, a seemingly ordinary housewife — described by her husband as “completely unremarkable in every way” — becomes a vegetarian after a terrifying dream. Han’s treatments of submission and subversion find form in the parable, as the housewife’s self-abnegation turns increasingly severe and surreal. This spare and elegant translation renders the original Korean in pointed and vivid English, preserving Han’s penetrating exploration of whether true innocence is possible in a vicious and bloody world.
Read our review of “The Vegetarian”
Inspired by the notebooks and reminiscences of his grandfather, a painter who served in the Belgian Army in World War I, Hertmans writes with an eloquence reminiscent of W.G. Sebald as he explores the places where narrative authority, invention and speculation flow together. Weaving his grandfather’s stories into accounts of his own visits to sites that shaped the old man’s development as a husband and father as well as an artist, Hertmans has produced a masterly book about memory, art, love and war.
Read our review of “War and Turpentine”
** [JAC: This was the book recommended by philosopher Nigel Warburton as the best philosophy book of the year.] The author of the Montaigne biography “How to Live” has written another impressively lucid book, one that offers a joint portrait of the giants of existentialism and phenomenology: Sartre, Beauvoir, Camus, Jaspers, Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger and a half-dozen other European writers and philosophers. Around the early 1930s, the story divides between the characters who eventually come out more or less right, like Beauvoir, and the ones who come out wrong, like Heidegger. Some of Bakewell’s most exciting pages present engaged accounts of complex philosophies, even ones that finally repel her. And the biographical nuggets are irresistible; we learn, for example, that for months after trying mescaline, Sartre thought he was being followed by “lobster-like beings.”
Read our review of “At the Existentialist Café”
In 1980 Charles and David Koch decided they would spend vast amounts of their fortune to elect conservatives to all levels of government, and the world of American politics has never been the same. Mayer spent five years looking into the Koch brothers’ activities, and the result is this thoroughly investigated, well-documented book. It cannot have been easy to uncover the workings of so secretive an operation, but Mayer has come as close to doing it as anyone is likely to anytime soon.
Read our review of “Dark Money”
In May 2008, Desmond moved into a Milwaukee trailer park and then to a rooming house on the poverty-stricken North Side. A graduate student in sociology at the time, he diligently took notes on the lives of people on the brink of eviction: those who pay 70 to 80 percent of their incomes in rent, often for homes that are, objectively speaking, unfit for human habitation. Desmond’s empathetic and scrupulously researched book reintroduces the concept of “exploitation” into the poverty debate, showing how eviction, like incarceration, can brand a person for life.
Read our review of “Evicted”
When Faludi learned that her estranged and elderly father had undergone gender reassignment surgery, in 2004, it marked the resumption of a difficult relationship. Her father was violent and full of contradictions: a Hungarian Holocaust survivor and Leni Riefenstahl fanatic, he stabbed a man her mother was seeing and used the incident to avoid paying alimony. In this rich, arresting and ultimately generous memoir, Faludi — long known for her feminist journalism — tries to reconcile Steven, the overbearing patriarch her father once was, with Stefánie, the old woman she became.
Read our review of “In the Darkroom”
Matar’s father, Jaballa Matar — a prominent critic of Muammar el-Qaddafi’s dictatorship — was abducted in exile, in 1990, and turned over to the Libyan regime. Whether Jaballa was among those killed in a prison massacre six years later is impossible to know; he simply disappeared. Hisham Matar returned to Libya in the spring of 2012, in the brief honeymoon after Qaddafi had been overthrown and before the current civil war, and his extraordinary memoir of that time is so much more besides: a reflection on the consolations of art, an analysis of authoritarianism, and an impassioned work of mourning.
Read our review of “The Return”
Your turn now: tell us what you’re reading and what you’ve liked (or disliked).