Sunday, November 27, 2005

a small sample of what's new and notable

The New York Times published its list of "100 New and Notable Books of the Year" this past week. Most of the books will still be new and notable to me next year, and maybe the year after that - it's hard to keep up with all the interesting books being written. Still, I was excited to recognize a few books I'd read and enjoyed:

Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee - Coetzee often writes stories which feel like a horrible accident you can't look away from. In this novel, such an accident occurs in the first sentence, and it launches an entrancing meditation on age, dependence, longing, and forgiveness. Definitely a worthwhile read, though you might want to start with Coetzee's earlier novel Elizabeth Costello - whose title character invades this novel and its protagonist's life.

Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed by Jared Diamond - By minutely examining such things as soil erosion, tree growth rates, rodent middens, and trade patterns, Diamond illuminates the process of ecological disaster - and some potential solutions. This book is also a companion to Diamond's previous study, Guns, Germs, and Steel, which I haven't read yet - I still enjoyed Collapse and felt inspired to a greater awareness.

Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner - Like Diamond, "rogue economist" Steven Levitt looks for profound lessons from the most familiar elements of life - such as, where do our first names come from, and can they influence the people we become? The book incited controversy for its correlation of legalized abortion in the early 1970's and falling crime in the 1990's - demonstrating that economic findings can be unpleasant as well as dismal. This book is delightful, though, and full of brilliantly counterintuitive discoveries.

A couple of the books were on the list which I started but didn't manage to get into. They may have been good books, I just didn't connect for some reason:

Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis - Narrated by a character whose name is also Bret Easton Ellis, and begins his novel with a long account of his rise to celebrity while still in college, writing a series of notoriously violent and sex-filled novels. I wanted to appreciate Ellis' ironic self-loathing, and how much he had grown since his wanton youth, but I couldn't quite care.

On Beauty by Zadie Smith - Cast as a modern retelling of Forster's Howards End, with a multi-racial family and a university based on Harvard. I love Forster, and some of her transformations seemed nifty, but the characters seemed to grow tiresome. Still, it got great reviews, maybe I'll try it again some day.

There are obviously a lot of other great books on the list, including some I'm hoping to read soon by Dave Eggers, Ian McEwan, and Haruki Murakami. A couple others would have certainly made my personal top-whatever list: A History of Love by Nicole Krauss, and Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.

Still, I suppose these lists are always incomplete, arguable, and subjective. And no one publishes a list of the "100 Old and Obscure Books of the Year," as far as I am aware, even though those are often the most enjoyable of all. I guess every book is new if you haven't read it, and it's probably notable as well, at least to someone.

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