Given that I’ve written post the past two years about books I’ve read during the previous year and that I think are worthwhile to read (here and here), I’m adding a new list for 2013, divided into fiction and non-fiction, and again a selection only. They are not always the newest releases but worthwhile the read anyway.
The book of the dead by Kgebetli Moele (2009), which has won the South African Literary Award. The cover does not say anything about the story, and maybe I should not either. Moele’s book is a gripping read, and with a twist in the second part of the book (so: spoiler alert!). The first part is about Khutso, a boy growing up in a town in South Africa; it is “the book of the living”. Then he gets infected with HIV, and “the book of the dead” starts. Writing shifts from third-person to first person, and from the vantage point of the virus that wants to replicate and spread to sustain its existence, as if it has a mind of its own (read an excerpt from the second part). All does not end well.
Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance by Robert Pirsig is a ‘modern classic’ that this year celebrates its 40th anniversary. It is semi-autobiographical and the story exposes some philosophical ideas and the tensions between the sciences and the arts, partially explained through drawing parallels with motorcycles and motorcycle maintenance. A minor storyline is about a road trip of father and son, and there is an unspoken undercurrent about inhumane psychiatric treatments (electroshocks in particular) of people deemed mentally ill. It is an interesting read for the complexity of the narrative and the multiple layers of the overall story, i.e. literary it is impressive, but I guess it is called ‘a classic’ more for the right timing of the release of the book and the zeitgeist of that era and therefore may resonate less with younger people these days. There are many websites discussing the contents, and it has its own wikipedia entry.
The girl with the dragon tattoo by Stieg Larssen (2008). I know, the movie is there for those who do not want to read the tome. I have not seen it, but the book is great; I recently got the second installment and can’t wait to start reading it. It is beautiful in the way it portrays Swedish society and the interactions between people. The tired male journalist, the troubled female hacker, and a whole cast of characters for the ‘whodunnit’.
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (2008). I bought this book because I liked the tipping point (mentioned last year). It is just as easily readable, and this time Gladwell takes a closer look at the data behind “outliers”, those very successful people, and comes to the conclusion there are rather mundane reasons for it. From top sports people who typically happen to have their date of birth close to the yearly cut-off point, which makes a big difference among small children, giving them a physical advantage, and then it’s just more time spent training in the advanced training programmes. To being at the right time in the right place, and a lot (‘10000 hours’) of practice and that “no one, not even a genius, ever makes it alone” (regardless of what the self-made-man stories from the USA are trying to convince you of).
The Abu Ghraib Effect by Stephen F. Eisenman (2007). I had a half-baked draft blog post about this book, trying to have it coincide with the 10 year ‘anniversary’ of the invasion by the USA into Iraq, but ran short of time to complete it. This is a condensed version of that draft. Eisenman critically examines the horrific photos taken of the torture at the Abu Ghraib prison in 2003 by US Military officers, by analyzing their composition, content, and message and comparing it to a selection of (what is deemed) art over the past 2500 years originating in, mainly, Europe. He finds that the ‘central theme’ depicted in those photos can be traced back from all the way to Hellenic times to this day, with just a brief shimmer of hope in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and a few individuals deviating from the central theme. The ‘central theme’ is the Pathosformel being an entente between torturer and victim, of passionate suffering, and representing “the body as something willingly alienated by the victim (even to the point of death) for the sake of the pleasure and aggrandizement of the oppressor” (p16). Or, in plain terms: the artworks depicting subjects (gleefully and at time with sexual undertone) undergoing and accepting their suffering and even the need for torture, the necessity of suffering for the betterment of the ruling classes, for the victors of war, imperial culture, for (the) god(s), including fascist and racist depictions, and the perpetrators somehow being in their ‘right’. In contrast to the very Christian accept-your-suffering, there are artworks that deviate from this by showing the unhappy suffering, conveying that it is not the natural order of things, and are, as such, political statements against torture. Examples Eisenman uses to illustrate the difference between the two are Picasso’s Guernica, Goya’s Third of May 1808, the custody of a criminal does not call for torture, and the captivity is as barbarous as the crime (links to the pictures). Compare this to Laokoon and his sons (depicting him being tortured to death by being ripped apart by snakes, according to the story), Michelangelo’s The dying slave (if it weren’t for the title, one would think he’s about to start his own foreplay), Sodoma’s St. Sebastien (who seems to be delightedly looking upwards to heaven whilst having spears rammed in his body), and the many more artworks analysed in the book on the pathos formula. While Eisenman repeats that the Abu Ghraib photos are surely not art, his thesis is that the widespread internalization of the pathos formula made it acceptable to the victimizers in Iraq to perpetrate the acts of torture and take the pictures (upon instigation and sanctioning by higher command in the US Military), and that there was not really an outcry over it. Sure, the pictures have gone around the globe, people expressed their disgust, but, so far as Eisenman could document (the book was written in 2007), the only ones convicted for the crimes are a few military officers to a few year in prison. The rest goes on with apparent impunity, with people in ‘the West’ going about their business, and probably most of you reading this perhaps had even forgotten about it, as if they were mere stills of a Hollywood movie. Eisenman draws parallels with the TV series 24 and the James Bond Movie Goldfinger, the latter based on his reading of Umberto Eco’s analysis of Fleming, where love is transformed in hatred and tenderness in ferocity (Eisenman quoting Eco, p94). From a theoretical standpoint, the “afterword” is equally, if not more, important, to read. Overall, the thin book is full of information to ponder about.
Others books include Nice girls don’t get the corner office by Lois Frankel, but if you’d have to choose, then I’d rather recommend the Delusions of gender I mentioned last year, and the non-fiction books in the 2012 list would be a better choice, in my opinion, than Critical mass by Philip Ball as well (the mundane physics information at the start was too long and therefore I made it only partially through the book and put it back on the shelf before I would have gotten to the actual thesis of the book.)
And yes, like last year, I’ve read some ‘pulp’, and re-read the hunger games trilogy (in one weekend!), but I’ll leave that for what it is (or maybe another time). If you have any suggestions for ‘must read’, feel free to leave a note. There are some access limitations here, though, because it is not always the most recent books that are in the bookshops. I live near a library now, and will visit it soon, hoping I can finally follow up on a reader’s previous suggestion to read the books by Nadine Gordimer.