Below are reviews of all the books I read (and some that I failed to finish) from November 2012 to December 2013.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt – The work of a black magician, who, although she reveals both killer and victim in the first paragraph, will have you trembling for the next 600 pages of this inverted murder-mystery.
Amsterdam by Ian McEwan – A seamless postmodern parable about sexual jealousy, the sin of pride, and a rarely examined feature of adult friendships — unacknowledged rivalry.
The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan – The only novel that’s ever made me sweat.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – Though I think Darkness at Noon the slightly superior and ultimately more horrifying account of imprisonment in Stalinist Russia, Denisovich is unforgettable because its storyline, like its prose, is as chilling and gritty as slushed Siberian snow.
Ravelstein by Saul Bellow – Written by an 85-year-old Bellow, what starts as a strutting character portrait of Ravelstein, bon vivant and intellectual extraordinaire, delicately metamorphoses into a powerful reflection on how late-life relationships may be reconciled with intimations of mortality.
Rachel Papers by Martin Amis – A book I wish I’d picked up several years ago, when I would’ve been more charmed by Charles Ryder’s teenage exploits and less irked by Amis’s rookie technical mistakes.
The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis – An uneven novel: half juvenile melodrama, half omniscient meditation on the sexual ethos and social mores wrought by promiscuous soixante-huitards.
The Child in Time by Ian McEwan – There’s a scene in the grocery store… I can’t describe… just… read the scene in the grocery store… (then try to put the book down).
Lionel Asbo: State of England by Martin Amis – Like Updike’s Terrorist and Nabokov’s Original of Laura, this woeful novel may signal the moment when the master’s powers have begun to wane.
Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman – While these wildly inventive short stories may look like they’re about the life-to-come, they actually illuminate something else: our lived-lives, and how tentatively we grasp them.
Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman – Like Sum, it’s written by a scientist, and you can tell; while his ambition is admirable, Lightman’s meager prose spoils about half his stories. (Skip ahead to “15 May 1905”)
The Odyssey by Homer (trans. Stanley Lombardo) – Lombardo’s translation is accessible and engaging, an ideal version for those of us who aren’t fluent in Ancient Greek written in dactylic hexameter.
How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill – Exactly what popular history should be: easy to read, easy to comprehend, hard to put down.
Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi – Don’t start it late at night, you won’t get to sleep.
I Will Bear Witness: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer (1933-41) by Victor Klemperer – Even the most patient reader will be lulled at times; but this monotony, too, may crystallize an Arendtian truth about the Third Reich: that for many of its citizens, tedium and confusion – not terror – were the marks of its first decade.
To the Bitter End: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer (1942-45) by Victor Klemperer – Without even a sentence of slack, this frenetic historical narrative intensifies up to its surreal apogee: a first-person record of nightfall before the shelling of Dresden.
Everyday Drinking by Kingsley Amis – As you’ll quickly tell, the author has done the hard thinking — and hard drinking — to prep for this project.
Pagan Christianity? by George Barna & Frank Viola – Is this book written for scholars, seventh-graders, or Sunday-schoolers? (It can’t seem to make up its mind, even within chapters)
Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter by Thomas Cahill – Though no sequel could touch Irish, Cahill again proves to be an illuminating tour guide through the banquet halls and battlefields of Ancient Greek civilization.
The King’s English by Kingsley Amis – I can’t imagine anyone other than Amis Sr. defending the austere conventions of our language with such wrathful satire, wit, and venom.
Science and Philosophy
Nothing to Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes – I reread this extended reflection on mortality for about the eighth time this year; and as with the previous seven times, it had a seismic, lingering impact on how I think and feel about mortality.
The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris – I was challenged; I was edified; I was entertained; but I was never convinced by the thesis of this ambitious but often repetitive look at ethics and their psychological roots.
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius – It’s ambiguous and even pompous at points, but remains one of the gold standards in meditative philosophy (… and is also Bill Clinton’s favorite book).
The View from Nowhere by Thomas Nagel – The most stunning book I read this year: a text that any honest reader will immediately recognize as the work of a higher intelligence.
Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer – After training for less than a year, the 24-year-old Foer set a record at the U.S. Memory Championship by memorizing the order of 52 playing cards in a minute and a half… you try it. (As a side note, I wonder who’s the prouder Jewish mother: the mom of Joshua, Jonathan, and Franklin Foer, or the mother of the Emanuel brothers.)
Lying by Sam Harris – Put into it an hour of reading, take from it a fundamentally reoriented perspective on dishonesty’s corrosive effects.
Why Does the World Exist? by Jim Holt – Although I had to reread not only every page but just about every paragraph, this interdisciplinary look at one of life’s most essential conundrums is well worth the effort it demands.
Politics and Government
The Second Plane: Terror and Boredom by Martin Amis – It has some righteous rage and a lot of style, but does its author possess the relevant knowledge to sustain his bold geopolitical diagnoses? (I’m not so sure)
WAR by Sebastian Junger – Like Junger and his late friend Tim Hetherington, beneath a Spartan exterior this book is entirely admirable — a sophisticated register of the traumas of modern warfare, as well as its moments of humanity and heroism.
It’s Even Worse than It Looks by Norman Ornstein & Thomas E. Mann – After reading this chronicle of Congressional incompetence, you’ll be ready to grab your pitchfork and storm the capital.
This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral in America’s Gilded Capital by Mark Leibovich – After reading this chronicle of political hypocrisy, you’ll be ready to use that pitchfork once you get there.
Memoir and Biography
Still Foolin’ ‘Em by Billy Crystal – If you don’t like this book or its author, I probably wouldn’t like you.
Levels of Life by Julian Barnes – Here Barnes puts an emotional stamp on the cerebral ground tilled in Nothing; the final chapter, which concerns his wife’s sudden passing, is such a raw account of bereavement that only the most serious reader will be able to stomach it.
Palimpsest by Gore Vidal – A palimpsest was the equivalent of an ancient dry erase board, a parchment written over and erased, time and again; to Vidal, it’s also a metaphor for how the theater of the adult mind processes childhood memories, and thus creates a personal history.
Point to Point Navigation by Gore Vidal – In WW2, Submarines navigated to desired coordinates by triangulating them with their previous locations; Vidal extended this image to describe his post-war life as a sequence of steps in which past lessons were translated into actions. (Still, to GV fans, I’d recommend Palimpsest as the superior book)
Darkness Visible by William Styron – An emotionally rending tale of Styron’s helpless descent into the bowels of depression (an experience which is counterposed brilliantly with his lucid reflections and brilliant command of language).
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham – Combine Meacham’s easily-digestible prose with the life of someone as fascinating as Jefferson and the result can’t be too far from consistently engrossing.
Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie – It’s astonishing that such a gifted writer could take such an intriguing personal experience and create a tedious, two-dimensional story that, for some insane reason, he narrates in the third person.
Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson – This book has much to teach about the man and his mind, but there are three elements which I found most interesting: Einstein’s radical take on politics and social posturing; his waggish sense of humor; and how so many of his discoveries sprang, not from experiments done in the lab, but from visuospatial exercises he dreamed up while riding the tram or playing his violin.
Make Gentle the Life of This World by Maxwell Taylor Kennedy – RFK’s personal journals, where he collected musings on the meaning of both public and private life from not only Jefferson and Lincoln, but also littérateurs like Camus, Goethe, and Eliot. (One cringes to imagine the jottings in the journals of today’s Congressional class.)
The Missionary Position by Christopher Hitchens – I don’t trust non-fiction without footnotes (that said, if you can take Hitch at his word, this is a compelling evisceration of both Mother Teresa’s fanaticism and our propensity to give “saints” automatic adulation).
An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917 – 1963 by Robert Dallek – A highly readable chronicle of Kennedy’s personality and political career – as well as the way in which flaws in the former spurred missteps in the latter.
The End of Time by David Horowitz – It’s Nothing to Be Frighted Of for Beginners: A short mortality memoir that is cerebral and full of plangent anxieties, but lacking the breadth and depth of Barnes’s text.
Highlights from the Classroom
FDR by Jean Edward Smith – Of the six I read for my fall thesis, this is the best (and unfortunately the longest) biography of the paradoxical Mr. Roosevelt.
Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam – A forceful, urgent diagnosis of the most menacing sociological shift in post-war America — namely, the disintegration of our Tocquevillian civic institutions.
The Origin and Nature of Mass Opinion by John Zaller – If I’m asked how the American public forms its political opinions, the first words out of my mouth are inevitably, “According to John Zaller’s Receive-Accept-Sample model…”
Mobilization, Participation and Democracy by Steven J. Rosenstone & John Mark Hansen – The finest evaluation I’ve seen of why America’s voter participation – and general sense of political efficacy – has plummeted since 1960.
How Democratic is the American Constitution? by Robert Dahl – A perfect layman’s introduction to the features (and – we should admit – flaws) in America’s founding document.
What to Expect When No One’s Expecting by Jonathan Last – I owe a massive debt to Last and his phenomenal book, which fell into my lap one day, and not only inspired my thesis, but also provided me with a framework for understanding the daunting question of U.S. demography in the coming century.
Presidential Power and Modern Presidents by Richard Neustadt – The Bible for the Tenured Old Guard of the Georgetown Government Department, many of whom studied under Neustadt. (While I don’t totally share in their veneration, I nevertheless developed Stockholm Syndrome towards the book.)
Personality and Politics by Fred I. Greenstein – I was lucky to be led through this book by Presidential historian Stephen Wayne, though any solitary reader can appreciate Greenstein’s explanation for why cognition and emotional intelligence are so crucial to the modern Presidency.
Culture War?: The Myth of a Polarized America by Morris P. Fiorina – More than any time in the past five decades, we need Congress to absorb the rigorous datasets provided and explained by Fiorina in this book.
The Psychological Assessment of Presidential Candidates by Stanley A. Renshon – Ambition, Integrity, Relatedness are the three psychological components of leaders, according to Renshon’s model (I’m yet to find a more sound theoretical framework for evaluating leadership).
The Political Mind by George Lakoff – For better or for worse, Lakoff argues, Human beings (e.g. voters) are not wholly rational, so to communicate with them, use metaphors, narratives, and appeals to emotion – not data.
Congress: The Electoral Connection by David Mayhew – “Congressmen are single-minded seekers of reelection”: there isn’t a better or more memorable epigram for interpreting the everyday action of our legislators.
Inside Terrorism by Bruce Hoffman – Academic but generally comprehensible, Hoffman’s primer is a solid overview of the motivations, methods, and minds of people who commit acts of terror and suicide-murder.
The Ones that Got Away
Robert Kennedy and His Times by Arthur Shlesinger – I was Kennedy’d-out by the time I started it, but I’ll return sometime soon.
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov – Expecting a snarky reply, I texted my hyper-literate friend S. to say I couldn’t finish the novel; he responded simply, “How does one read such a book?”
Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh – This feels blasphemous, but I’ll say it: I was bored by page 50.
Justice for Hedgehogs by Ronald Dworkin – Dworkin’s stuff is easier to sample than digest whole.
God, Freedom, and Evil by Alvin Plantinga – At only 121 pages, this book is heavier than it weighs.
If I Had to Recommend One…
History: To the Bitter End: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer (1942-45)
Science/Philosophy: The View from Nowhere/Nothing to Be Frightened Of
Memoir/Biography: Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power
Classroom: Bowling Alone