Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Favorites of 2012: Books

Nonfiction

Daniel Kahneman: Thinking, Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011). There are two modes of thought that we each employ: we use the fast "System 1" for things like emotional responses, intuitions, or snap judgments, and the slow "System 2" for things like calculation or logical argument. But this division of mental labor often leads us into error when we use System 1 for tasks that really require System 2. We confuse familiarity with truth, allow random suggestions to affect our judgments, assume small samples are representative, and focus on the details of a problem to the exclusion of important information from its larger context. And advertisers, politicians, and others who want to manipulate us take full advantage of these cognitive failings. In my post on Thinking, Fast and Slow I wrote "You'll never look at apparently simple choices in the same way again—and that's a good thing." This very entertaining book is a must-read for anyone who has a brain.

Alison Bechdel: Are You My Mother? (Houghton Mifflin, 2012). In her brilliant graphic memoir Fun Home (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), Bechdel depicted the emotional consequences of her closeted gay father's secret life on him and on the rest of her family. Now she turns to her difficult relationship with her mother. In my post Alison Bechdel: DTWOF, Fun Home, and Are You My Mother? I wrote of this "very rewarding" book that it had "many of the strengths of Fun Home—emotional honesty, thoughtfulness, and a clear-eyed portrayal of everyone involved..."

Fiction

Katherine Boo: Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (Random House, 2012). This widely praised book has been marketed as nonfiction; indeed, it is the winner of the 2012 National Book Award in that category. However, Boo confesses in her afterword that she speaks no Indian languages and relied on translators for all of her interactions with the struggling residents of Annawadi, an impoverished settlement adjacent to the luxury hotels that surround Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. Despite her language handicap, though, Boo is somehow able to transcribe lengthy internal monologues by her characters, and record verbatim conversations at which it is extremely unlikely that she or her translators were present. There's a word for books which feature these sorts of things: novels. This is a well-written and affecting work of imaginative recreation, or, as we say in my house, fiction.

William Thackeray: Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq. (1844). Barry Lyndon is a charming rogue, a soldier of fortune, a gambler, a brawler, and an extremely unreliable narrator of his highly entertaining memoirs. "The great and rich are welcomed, smiling, up the grand staircase of the world; the poor but aspiring must clamber up the wall, or push and struggle up the back stair, or, pardi, crawl through any of the conduits of the house, never mind how foul and narrow, that lead to the top" (Ch. 10).

Orhan Pamuk: Museum of Innocence (Iletişim, 2008; Knopf, 2009). Kemal begins a passionate affair with his beautiful 18-year-old niece Füsun that shatters his complacent existence. After the affair ends abruptly, Kemal turns the apartment where he and Füsun made love in the afternoons into a shrine to Füsun and their brief time together. Over the years, he accumulates a museum's worth of emotionally-charged objects touched in some way by her presence: earrings, toothbrushes, barrettes, cigarette butts with traces of her lipstick.

As I wrote in Orhan Pamuk, "In a real-life extension of the novel, Pamuk has opened an actual Museum of Innocence in Istanbul; every copy of the novel comes with an admission ticket (printed on page 520 of the paperback edition). People ‘forget the objects with which they had lived so intimately, never even acknowledging their emotional attachment to them' (p. 510). The Museum of Innocence attempts to reclaim these everyday objects from the oblivion to which time, changing fashion and our indifference generally consign them by allowing us to see them through Kemal's haunted eyes. Pamuk has also published a kind of catalog to his museum, The Innocence of Objects (Iletişim, 2012; Abrams, 2012)."

Michael Frayn: Headlong (Faber, 1999). Martin believes he's stumbled across a previously unknown Bruegel in his neighbor's country house. His discovery inaugurates a chain of bad behavior and worse decisions. In Trapped in subjectivity: Michael Frayn I wrote, "Exactly who is using whom grows less and less certain, while the likelihood that all of these entanglements are going to lead to disaster for Martin becomes more and more so."


Biggest disappointment

Haruki Murakami: 1Q84 (Knopf, 2011). Aomame is a beautiful, bisexual assassin who favors miniskirts and lusts after middle-aged men with receding hairlines; Tengo is an aspiring writer. In childhood they shared a moment of intense emotional connection. Two decades later they find themselves in an alternate version of 1984 Tokyo, trying desperately to connect with one another.

The novel's odd details—fanatical religious cults, a women's shelter that assures the safety of its residents by murdering their abusers, a dogged detective, and Little People who can move between the parallel worlds of 1984 and 1Q84—held my interest for about three-quarters of this 900-page book. But then it became increasingly difficult to ignore the novel's clunky writing (perhaps partly the fault of hasty translation by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel) and schematic plot. As I wrote in Haruki Murakami's 1Q84: "The novel seemed to be ending just when the most interesting part of the story—Tengo and Aomame's emergence from their emotional shells—was about to begin."

More Favorites of 2012: Bollywood and Bengal, Movies, Television, and Music

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