Just in time for readers everywhere to get ideas for gift-giving and to also realize exactly how few new books they have gotten to in the past year, The New York Times just released its annual 100 Notable Books list. It’s a daunting list, to be sure, and not always entirely justified—Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane is somewhat inexcusably not on the list, while Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs takes up a not entirely necessary slot—but here’s a few of their selections that look best suited for catching up on in the long cold month of January:
All That Is - by James Salter. (Knopf, $26.95.) Salter’s first novel in more than 30 years, which follows the loves and losses of a World War II veteran, is an ambitious departure from his previous work and, at a stroke, demolishes any talk of twilight.
Duplex - By Kathryn Davis. (Graywolf, $24.) A schoolteacher takes an unusual lover in this astonishing, double-hinged novel set in a fantastical suburbia.
Empress Dowagar Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China – by Jung Chang. (Knopf, $30.) Chang portrays Cixi as a proto-feminist and reformer in this authoritative account.
The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking – by Brendan I. Koerner. (Crown, $26.) Refusing to make ’60s avatars of the unlikely couple behind a 1972 skyjacking, Koerner finds a deeper truth about the nature of extremism.
I’ll be contributing as usual to the Best Of Books features at PopMatters, which should run towards the end of the year.
So amidst much hue and cry, Americans are now going to forego the pleasure of receiving bills, bills, charitable solicitations, and hand-painted thank-you notes from far-flung nieces and nephews on Saturday. This is due in part to just the higher costs of delivering mail six days a week as opposed to five and the exponential increase in electronic communication, but also because of some sublimely foolish decisions made by Congress. According to the New York Times:
…post office officials say the cuts, rate increases and staff reductions are not enough to make up for the two reasons it is losing money. One is a requirement that it pay nearly $5.5 billion a year for health benefits to future retirees, a mandate imposed on no other government agency.
Their decision to sponsor a certain well-known bicyclist might have not been the most prudent use of government funds, either.
Although most people are fine with ending Saturday delivery of letters, they are also opposed to closing local post offices. There’s a good reason for that, as it’s one of the most dependable points of government contact in many neighborhoods. The lines might be long, and the service not always the greatest, but you know it’s there.
In the face of some of the usual suspects calling for out and out privatization of the mail service, it’s worth looking back at one of Terry Pratchett’s novels from his great Discworld series, Going Postal. It starts off as a comedy about a man being reprieved from a hanging and then moves into a broadly satirical and optimistic social comedy about the importance of the public sphere and the dangers of turning everything over to the marketplace.
Also, it has one of Pratchett’s better openings:
They say that the prospect of being hanged in the morning concentrates a man’s mind wonderfully; unfortunately, what the mind inevitably concentrates on is that, in the morning, it will be in a body that is going to be hanged.
Besides smashing guitars and banging out beautiful noise on world stages for the past few decades, The Who’s Pete Townshend is something of a reader. This would be surprising in and of itself, classic rock gods not being known for their love of cozying up with a good read, but Townshend (who, after all, did create an entire rock opera around a Ted Hughes poem) takes his appreciation of literature a little further.
According to this interview from the New York Times, Townshend could be termed something of a book nerd. When asked for his likes and dislikes, the list is truly comprehensive, ranging from Les Miserables and Scandinavian crime fiction to lesser-knowns like William Boyd and Paul Hendrickson. He also opened up his own bookstore a few years ago, called Magic Bus.
But get this: Pete Townshend even worked in publishing as an acquisitions editor for the London house Faber & Faber:
That was the best job I ever had. I had lunch with the old chairman, Matthew Evans, this week, and we both went dewy-eyed about the old days. He’s in the House of Lords trying to stay awake, and I’m pounding stages like an aging clown.
Some people like books and others have a passion for books. It seems safe to say that Townshend is the latter.
As part of the effort over the past several years by various publishers to ensure the longevity of George Orwell, this past August a collection of some eleven of his diaries was released, with an introduction by Christopher Hitchens. Barry Gewen’s New York Times review doesn’t make it sound like the most engaging of reading, advising readers to take Hitch’s faint praise (notable from such an Orwell fan) to heart. In other words, there are a lot of things in these diaries that many people put in their diaries which aren’t meant to thrill the public (lists of animals spotted, far too much information about chickens).
But the review gives Gewen a chance to consider the many contradictions and attractions of Orwell’s writings, namely, his attention to the quotidian details of the everyday, the “thinginess of life.” This focus on grounded realities—as well as his natural aversion to authority—made Orwell healthily suspicious of abstractions and “isms.” Although a patriot, he despised much of the systems that constituted England: “Insofar as patriotism was equated with God, King and Country or, worse, the preservation of the British Empire, he was against it.” Gewen further notes:
What patriotism meant to Orwell was the ordinary things of his English life — heavy coins, stamp collecting, dart games, an irrational spelling system. In the essay “Notes on Nationalism,” a companion piece to “England Your England,” he said: “By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life.” It was around this same time that he wrote essays in praise of pubs, cricket, even (outlandishly) English cooking. He would lay down his life not for the grandiose abstractions preached by politicians and the clergy but for gardening and warm beer.
In other words, a patriot for humanity, and not a flag.