New Year’s eve is here and the Kain family is very sick; a poor coda on an otherwise excellent year. I am a holdout against the viruses but the only thing anyone is going to drink tonight is Pedialyte. I’m likely going to take comfort in Alan Furst’s Dark Star whose opening pages are well crafted or continue chugging through the Beatles history Tune In (mixed.) Somehow it winnowed into my consciousness I didn’t do the blogging I’ve wanted to do this year. Herewith, my reading highlights this year.
1. The book more people are buying than reading: The Goldfinch.
Donna Tartt’s third novel effectively reprises the narrator from her first, The Secret History. Richard and Theo, each with some formative years literally in the desert, are each drawn to elite east coast societies where corruptions lurk underneath very appealing skins. As novels of manners go, Tartt is among the most deft writing today – particularly the nuances of adolescent and younger boys which I think would be hard enough to do as a man. I would take any paragraph of hers over Richard Ford or Jonathan Franzen. But the characters are almost always two dimensional including the antagonist, Boris, who is a hybrid of Gary Shteyngart’s cutting room floor and cold war Bond villians. They’re fun, but really not memorable. Nor long for this world: you won’t have long to wait between premature deaths. The elegance of the Secret History was the ramifications from only two. A terrorist bomb blows up parts of the Met, and has no subsequent consequence on society? The motivations are never revealed? Irresolution was the cop-out at the end of her other book, The Little Friend. Like that 2003 work I was captivated the whole way but left empty at the end, a concluding plea of the importance of art to life not withstanding. Is it possible that the book that took a decade was rushed? Like the eponymous creature, the book is beautiful but ultimately chained down.
I pre-ordered the hardback so was among the first to receive what was presumably among the large first printing. A peculiar note. Page 747 returns to page 667, and so the final chapter is missing. I only saw one other complaint online about this, but surely we can’t be the only two to get a hardback in first printing with such a flaw? Unscientifically I’d note most social media commentary about the Goldfinch is about starting it, or being fifty pages in. This has been among the top selling books of the year and few are having this problem, fewer still discussing the meaning of The Goldfinch. There may not be much of one.
I am starting to wonder if this is the case with most literary fiction that hits the best seller list. Amazon surely has the data on kindle whether people are finishing it; it was strange to see it briefly for sale for $2 early in the run as a best seller on Kindle, though I don’t know what to read into that.
2. He was more energetic than you. Or Anybody. Teddy Roosevelt in Edmund Morris’ Three Volume Biography.
I’ve blogged on this before but remain captivated by the story and am following up with Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit (on audiobook) and likely A.N. Wilson’s Wilson next, alongside a smattering of other works on Roosevelt including David McCullough’s. This should inspire finally getting around to tackling Robert Caro’s multivolume set on Lyndon Johnson, each of whose books I read 100 or so pages before running out of steam. Going light on twitter and nearly forsaking Facebook is what is necessary to get through these books and the rewards are worth the costs.
3. Brad Stone’s The Everything Store and Nick Bilton’s Hatching Twitter.
Released nearly simultaneously they are each must reads for techies in the sector, and perhaps society at large. The two authors had a joint appearance at the Commonwealth Club in December, and a remark of Stone’s was to the effect that we need more investigative journalism about the powerful companies coming to rule great sections of the economy. He certainly did the legwork necessary, with sources up and down the company painting I think a balanced picture of both Bezos and his principal creation, even if MacKensie & others feel otherwise. The concluding chapter in which he tracks down Bezos’ natural father is not to be missed — are all tech titans in a mad Telemachiac rush? (Or other great creators. Tune In mentions Lennon losing both of his parents to death or disappearance and McCartney to death: the depths of which shared bond will likely surface elsewhere.) Bilton’s work is reminiscent of a west coast Bob Woodward. The writing is breezy, topical and heavily biased to his particular sources. Perhaps this is an indicator of the type of coverage we’re likely to get with “more” coverage of such companies.
The fiscal near-death experiences both companies faced (profiled in different degrees) does make one wonder: is all the tech exuberance not just a function of semiconductor costs dropping and network connectivity, but the Federal Reserve? Would Amazon’s bond offering in 2001 been successful if the 10 year Treasury were at a more historic norm of say 7%?
4. Lonesome Dove
This is one of the books that has been tailing me from residence to residence since, oh, probably 2005. I remember picking it up at Green Apple Books, used but in sterling condition for $5. The cashier – as hippie as they come – also just raved about the book and the price. Finally in the grand book clean up of the spring it was time to either get read or get gone. In many ways, the polar opposite of Tartt: two dimensional writing to generate very three dimensional characters. I loved it and wish I had read it much earlier. I’m avoiding the poorly reviewed sequels and prequels lest the magic be lost. R.I.P. Gus. Deadwood by Pete Dexter is up next among Westerns to read.
5. Lean In & Bloomberg by Bloomberg.
Contrasting visions of what is necessary for success at work. If you are a mid-career white collar woman pursuing both pregnancy and promotion Lean In is a very thoughtful and resourceful book to help guide some choices. The criticism that her advice is not universally applicable is patently unfair.
Compare B by B:
I’m sure someone, someplace, is smart enough to succeed while “keeping it in perspective” and not working too hard, but I’ve never met him or her. The more you work, the better you do. It’s that simple. I always outworked the other guy (and if I hadn’t, he or she would be writing this book). Still I had a life. I don’t remember being so driven or focused that my job got in the way of playing in the evenings and on weekends. I dated all the girls. I skied and jogged and partied more than most. I just made sure I devoted twelve hours to work and twelve hours to fun — every day. The more you try to do, the more life you’ll have.
“Dating the girls” is very different than commitment to a marriage, and in discussing the divorce one has to ask: would it have happened on an eight-hour day?
Slowly, it began to dawn on me that my job did not really require that I spend twelve full hours a day in the office. I became much more efficient – more vigiliant about only attending or setting up meetings that were truly necessary, more determined to maximize my output during every minute I spent away from home…I tried to focus on what really mattered. Long before I saw the poster, I began to adopt the mantra “Done is better than perfect.” Done, while still a challenge, turns out to be far more achievable and often a relief.
Bloomberg wants Perfect and is well aware some inefficiencies will come it with it, Sandberg wants Done. I read a lot of books in previous years about excellence and what it takes but few boiled it down to life-work choices and these antipodes read well together for me in 2013.
There were only two big regrets, one which bears mentioning: The Circle by David Eggers. Novels of manners about tech are simply not done well. Eggers effectively bragged about his lack of research into the culture he’s satirizing but it made for many avoidable missteps. Perhaps Po Bronson’s The First Twenty Million was good but now grows dated. (His “Top Dog” btw was good this year.)
OTHER NOTES I’D LIKE TO RECORD FOR MYSELF
The ebook market is just too easy. Not just for johnny-come-latelies but even Niall Ferguson was tempted for a rush to publication after Thatcher’s death. His The Great Degeneration was also solid but lighter than his other works. Other than James Altuscher, the ebook-only market is still awfully dry. I suspect that will change in a few years and remain in love with my Kindle. Other than Game Change, found the year to be very light for political books – I didn’t read the lets say frequently reviewed This Town out of guilt by association. Books left unfinished for no good reason because they were great so far: 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson, and the ongoing Patrick O’Brien novels, still missing one book as well in Starr’s California series. Heinlein disappointing but would try others. Read two more books in the Gore Vidal America cycle and love every minute of them (just one to go, and plan to read more of his work.) Found David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas the most creative work I read this year (haven’t seen the movie but curious to do so. Would have to be a very difficult adaptation problem.) The Dodgers Move West by Neil Sullivan and Roger Kahn’s Memories of Summer covered more ground of baseball history heretofore new to me than I’ve had in awhile.
I definitely read less than in 2012; the MOOCs around architecture and computer programming took up a lot of time. I certainly watched more television — most of which very good including Arrested Development, House of Cards and Breaking Bad. Still the works didn’t hit the profound impact of Charles Murray’s Losing Ground, Edward Conard’s Unintended Consequences or Ray Kurzweil’s How to Create a Mind from that year. I read more fiction and plan to do that more. Advancing in programming is very time consumptive and impacts the time for reading. However, minimizing social media gains some of that back.
FIVE 2014 BOOK RESOLUTIONS
* More Roosevelt & turn of the century politics and culture.
* The Robert Caro bios of Lyndon Johnson
* Finish O’Brien, Vidal and Starr’s series
* I’ve accumulated a lot of noir paperbacks – having randomly enjoyed some obscure works (W.L. Heath Violent Saturday) as well as Chandler works (I’m a bigger fan of The Long Goodbye than others). A concentrated review of this genre might be fun, rather than say working through the collective works of Henry James.
* Shakespeare. Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing was a brilliant adaptation. The implication everyone is slightly inebriated at most times helps make the events of the even-implausible when written play translate well to modern times. I got Bloom’s Invention of the Human and enjoyed the section on Much Ado: the implication of an underlying nihilism was challenging for such a light (if/because of its formalistic?) comedy. I always enjoy seeing and reading Shakespeare and having a concentrated approach here is probably worth it. Even a read through once of all the plays plus Bloom would be a good refresher before my mind accelerates a middle-age descent.
* Histories of the Mediterranean if I in fact prep for a southern Italy/Sicily/Malta trip to try to match the great Athos expedition with Tom Roberts from October 2012. Disneyland trips (2x) are great but I need to more ambitiously travel.
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