It is Thanksgiving Break, and while there is plenty for a grad student to do in any mid-term break, these days of relative freedom are a great opportunity to look back on the reading I’ve done this year. Excluding those books I have not quite finished but that I have already written about for classes (a common but regrettable necessity for class, and one which does not permit these books to count as completed yet) I have read 169 books this year, so far. Including all the school-related reading, I have read closer to 180 books so far in 2011. And, for the past month or two I’ve been mired in lousy, or at least mediocre reading material, giving all the books I’ve read no more than a low 7 on my 10 point scale. No wonder then that I’ve been depressed lately, unless I’m depressed and rating books lower because of the depression (?). But I doubt it.
Actually this year has featured some fairly great books. The top-scoring book so far in Fiction is Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which in a way was recommended to me by John Cusack by way of his character’s rant in the film High Fidelity which mentioned this book in the same sentence as Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ book Love in the Time of Cholera. Since this other book is among my all-time favorites, alongside Michael Golding’s Simple Prayers, this made Kundera’s book a must-read for sure. And, yes, I would highly recommend Kundera’s book (no surprise, really). It has some disturbing scenes, and is best read with a nice hot cup of tea, maybe somewhere warm and pleasant to offset the gloomy contemplative state one might fall into after reading it, but it’s not depressing really, just prone to inspiring deep contemplation.
A more disturbing, yet surprisingly satisfying book was James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, a book about drug addiction and recovering oneself. I did not like reading the first 100 pages, actually, because it was a bit too gritty for me, but the writing is strong enough to outweigh the grit and turn this book into a rather powerful narrative. Frey doesn’t candy-coat anything in this story, and it takes a while, as a result, to really identify with the characters at all, especially if you’re a ‘sweet innocent’ like me, but I think that just makes it a more effective book by the end.I suppose reading this one while lounging someplace pretty might fall a bit flat as an antidote to the kind of disturbing imagery Frey provides.
A lovely book I picked up on a whim from the campus library, Hector Abad’s book The Joy of Being Awake lives up to its catchy title. The main character is not as likable as one might wish, but I think liking the narrator too much would detract from the artistry of the overall work. This is modern classic literature, for sure, of the same quality as Golding’s book mentioned above. Set in South America, this story weaves its way through a complex tapestry of politics, war and adventure which more than rivals any story I have read about Europe or India. I put up a map of South America while I was reading this book so I could find the towns and rivers as they were mentioned in Abad’s narrative, and learned lots of new history and geography as a bonus.
Last for now, Angus Wright’s book The Death of Ramon Gonzales weighed in as the best (highest scoring) nonfiction book I’ve read this year so far. This book comes out of the realm of investigative journalism, and reveals some very disturbing sides of the agricultural industry. While this book was written a while ago, the ability and incentives have not changed much since, certainly not enough for big agriculture to monitor and prevent the problems Wright explores. This book is readable and does not require any specialized understanding. Its focus is on the human dimensions of agriculture, while still doing a good job of explaining the basics about some of the pesticides and other chemicals involved in maintaining high crop yields and keeping our food prices low.