And the rest of my 2009 reading so far! Notice I’m well ahead of a book a day - by more than 25%, for the curious - but I doubt this will last past January. As the semester gets underway, I’ll have less opportunity to read fiction, and non-fiction always slows me down.
Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
Mansfield Park, Jane Austen
Emma, Jane Austen
Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen
Persuasion, Jane Austen
Lady Susan, Jane Austen
Hold Tight, Harlan Coben
I Remember the Future, Michael A. Burstein
Space Magic, David D. Levine
The Vintner’s Luck, Elizabeth Knox
The Bottom Billion, Paul Collier
Why yes, I do really enjoy Austen. Do we need to fight about that?
The theme of this week’s reading, though, was “Holy shit, why have I never heard of this amazing book before?” Specifically: Levine, Knox, Collier. I cannot say enough good things about any of them, and trying would make this post unreadably long - so we’ll stick with the more-or-less facts.
I picked up the Burstein book because I’d heard it had a lot of stories about time travel, which it in fact did. (Did I mention I love time travel?) But I found the stories largely uninspiring. They were good and some of them were clever, but none of them left me delighted. The concepts were all excellent, but the execution just didn’t push my buttons. Then a friend said, “Why don’t you try David Levine?” So I did, and went, “Right! Yes! Terrific! This is what I wanted!” There are a few duds in the collection (”Fear of Widths”) but the stories are largely tight, well-conceived, and well-written. I particularly appreciated how he smoothly moved back and forth between science fiction, fantasy, urban fantasy and alternate history. “Tk’Tk’Tk” is the award-winner here, but my personal favorite was “Love in the Balance.” While it wasn’t the best story in the collection, I was completely enchanted with the world the story implied, and I’d read just about anything Levine chose to set in that universe.
Knox tells the story of a man’s lifelong friendship with an angel, who visits him one fateful night in his vineyard in 1808. The book’s structure moves year by year through Sobran’s life, sharing incidents and vignettes that shape him and define his relationship to Xas, the angel. (Though I also loved the introduction of Aurora, the local baroness, who is delightfully practical about the whole angel thing.) The language is gorgeous yet simple, the characters well-developed and the supernatural elements original (and wonderfully done!). Really, this book was a delight from beginning to end, assuming you don’t mind a little tragedy in your romance and vice versa. I almost dismissed it as an Oprah’s-book-list-wannabe, but this little gem is something much richer, deeper and stranger. Highly recommended.
Finally, Collier’s book left me walking around the house going, “Oh my god! Capital flows of domestic investment! Wage gaps! Devaluation of local currency! Yes!” He tackles the problem of the “bottom billion,” as one might guess from the title - the billion people living in seriously troubled countries that are failing to grow. I’m totally impressed with his empirical research, and even more so with his ability to make complex economic concepts clear - and to explain why they matter, profoundly, for our policies toward failing states. If you read one non-fiction book this year, make it this one.
And now, Shabbat Shalom for real!