Monday, 3 December 2012

Best of 2012: Books (Part I)

At this time of year everyone comes up with end of year lists to fill space. There are a bunch of shows to come so that’s not problem here. But I do find lists like these irresistible reads, and occasionally useful ways to find something new I wouldn’t otherwise discover. So, in the first of a series of ‘Best of’ posts: The Bests Books I Read This Year (Part I).

Can You Feel the Silence?

I don’t actually read that many music bios (three this year), mainly because they are often really dull. There are few things I don’t like about Clinton Heylin (in particular that he can’t help but include himself in the story), but his books are well researched, well written, and interesting. Van Morrison is a particularly interesting subject because he has been so secretive, produced so much good music, but also failed to have the late career resurgence that many of his peers have experienced. This book goes some way towards explaining that. However, it never really manages to get inside the mind of Van Morrison. That might be too much to ask, given how reserved Morrison is, but it does make it hard to understand some of his actions (Heylin can only speculate). This is almost the definitive Van Morrison biography by default due to the absence of competitors, but if you’re interested in his work this is offers lots of interesting insights.

The Book Thief

I was initially going to rate the books on this list, but after putting The Book Thief at number one I couldn’t get any further. The book is quite long, but a very easy read (well narrated by Death). It focuses on a young girl in a small German village during the second world war. I’ve given quite a bit of thought about how Markus Zusak manages to have written a book with such a lot of potentially depressing content that is actually fairly light (I was tempted to write whimsical, but its heavier than that; really this is a book that’s hard to describe). My conclusion so far is that he’s a genius.

Crooked Little Vein

Warren Ellis is better known for his graphic novels, and so far this is his only novel. The phrase usually used to describe these types of novels is ‘the underbelly of America’ (other common phrases include ‘bizarre’, ‘drug-fuelled’ and ‘hilarious’). If you’ve read anything by Chuck Palahniuk (if you’ve read anything by Chuck Palahniuk you’ve pretty much read everything by him) you’ll be familiar with the type of story. I won’t try to describe the plot because it sounds stupid, and the novel isn’t that, but it’s a good little read.

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families

This is the best book I didn’t finish this year. I decided a while ago that I wasn’t going to waste my time finishing books I didn’t like. But that wasn’t the reason I stopped reading this one. It was because I found myself actually dreading having to read it because of the stream of horrific violence outlined in the book, and the staunch desire of everyone that could do something to stop to avoid doing so.

The book is about the Rwandan genocide that occurred over 100 days in 1994. During this time somewhere between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people were killed. This book does a fantastic job of outlining how and why this happened, and perhaps more importantly, how easily it could have been prevents or substantially reduced, and how determined some western governments were not to have to intervene. This is a hard book to read, but even if, like me, you only manage the first half, it’s a valuable experience.

Team of Rivals

I love politics. In a world where we generally like to assume we are civilised creatures, politics remains a realm where we have no such pretences. And elections! The very apex of the political process. Excitement abounds. Obviously this years big election happened in the US (no not the biennial congressional elections, although those too are fascinating). So I read a bunch of books on US politics (as an aside: if anyone tells you that the electoral college system is extremely complicated they’re not telling the truth). This book is supposedly the definitive biography of the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, with a particular focus on his cabinet (the ‘team of rivals’). For mine, the book focuses a bit too much on the nominating process; that’s necessary to set up the ‘team of rivals’ bit, but it took nearly a third of the book for Lincoln to receive the Republican nomination. As interesting as it was to learn about Lincoln, it was probably more interesting to see how the two main US political parties have changed so much, and to learn that, as much as Lincoln is revered as the ‘Great Liberator’ he was very much a man of his time (he assured Illinois voters that, while he opposed the spread of slavery, he supported Illinois’ laws prohibiting intermarriage and preventing African-Americans from testifying against whites in court).

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