Archive for December, 2014

2014 Book of the Year: What we see when we read

Book of the Year, Best Non-Fiction. What we see when we read by Peter Mendelsund. Another fine recommendation from the Ron Kaplan blog (I even heard the author being interviewed there), this is an intriguing book. Mendelsund investigates not only the physical act of reading, but focuses primarily on the mental relationships that develop during the process between the reader and the author and the reader and the characters described by the author. I especially liked the idea of the “’eye-voice span,’ which is the distance between where our eyes are looking on the page and where, on the page, our inner voice is reading.” This creates a fluid activity of “the memory of things read (past), the experience of a consciousness ‘now’ (present), and the anticipation of things to be read (future).”

He also discusses how reading is a collaborative effort between reader and author because “good books incite us to imagine – to fill in an author’s suggestions.” But it’s also not a completely shared event: “These images we ‘see’ when we read are personal: What we do not see is what the author pictured when writing a particular book. … We colonize books with our familiars; and we exile, repatriate the characters to lands we are more acquainted with.” Further essays describe how the narrative voice can change our internal camera viewpoint, how our imagination is shaped by our memories and the how, ultimately, we are constantly filtering and adding information provided by the author to create the world in our own minds. Some of these topics could get pretty deep and could easily have become bogged down in academic jargon, but Mendelsund uses illustrations and sparse text on every page spread, which keeps things moving along. This book will make you think about how you read, but won’t overwhelm you in the process.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.


2014 Books of the year: Non-fiction Runner-up

Runner-up, Non-Fiction. The Antidote: happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking by Oliver Burkeman. Boy, is this a hard book to explain, but fascinating nonetheless to read. For those seeking the state of happiness promised in the sub-title, it fails to provide any clear path or even a clear definition of such a state. Moreover, the author doesn’t even attempt to show how one achieves happiness by following the book’s tenets until the final two pages and then seems to admit defeat at the idea: “The negative path to happiness, then, is a different kind of path. But it is also a path to a different kind of destination. Or maybe it makes more sense to say that the path is the destination? These things are excruciatingly hard to put into words, and the spirit of negative capability sure dictates that we do not struggle too hard to do so.”

However, the book fully succeeds is in its penetrating critique of the cult of optimism and the culture of positive thinking that makes up so much of today’s self-help literature. It sharply attacks motivational speakers, ambitious goal-seeking, and the constant efforts to be happy as being too focused on an uncertain future, which is always just over the time horizon, rather than concentrating on the reality of the present. Burkeman skillfully weaves together counterintuitive thinking and historical and scholarly references with personal accounts of philosophical exploration. He brings together many different ideas: such as the Stoic concept of examining the worst-case scenario and accepting its possible occurrence as a way of relieving anxiety; the Buddhist idea of non-attachment to inner thoughts and outer events, the benefits of examining failure and “being willing to face, and to tolerate, insecurity and vulnerability” and even death.

This is not a book to be read on the subway or on an airplane with lots of distractions, but if you can find a tranquil location to contemplate its ideas, it’s well worth the effort. Really, what’s the worst that could happen?


Honorable Mention: The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny by Peter McGraw. An academic and a journalist travel the world examining why people laugh in different cultures. This could have been a great book, but gets bogged down sometimes in academic references.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.


2014 Books of the Year: Best Education Book

Best Education Book. World Peace and other 4th grade achievements by John Hunter.  Hunter is a teacher in the Mid-Atlantic region who developed the World Peace Game for use in his classroom.  It divides the class into four nations, each with its own prime minister, secretary of defense, and chief financial officer as well as resources, industries and budgets.  There are also roles as the UN, the World Bank, arms dealers, refugees, and Mother Nature.  At the beginning of each game, they are given fifty interconnected global crises such as global warming, tribal disputes, earthquakes and financial collapses.  To win the game, they must solve every crisis and make sure that each country increases its GNP.  The game teaches leadership, collaboration, negotiation, and deep thinking.  It got a lot of publicity when Chris Farina did a documentary film about it.  News organizations picked up on the story and Hunter eventually did a TED talk on it.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

2014 Books of the year: Best Autobiography, Best Sports Book

Best Autobiography, Best Sports Book. Slow Getting Up: a story of NFL survival from the bottom of the pile by Nate Jackson. My experience at fantasy baseball camp earlier this year gave me a new perspective on the harshness of the life of a professional athlete and Jackson’s memoir about his six years in the league only confirms those conclusions. His career lasted longer than the average NFL player, but he was frequently injured and on the edge of unemployment. His stories about the draft, tryouts, practice squads, NFL Europe, injured reserve, surgeries, pain medications and rehabilitation work, the UFL and the final cut should be required reading for high school studs envisioning a star future. Jackson doesn’t hold back, both in his use of blue language nor in his frank commentary about the league and the people in it. He praises his heroes and condemns his enemies equally, which makes this inside look at happenings within a football locker room worth reading. I wish he had detailed the business side of his career and his steps for a post-career transition to writing a bit more, but that’s just my personal bias.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

2014 Books of the year: Best Historical Mystery Runner-up

Runner-up, Historical Mystery. The Missing Italian Girl by Barbara Corrado Pope. The best mystery authors continue to develop their characters as their series progress and the third Bernard Martin story set in 1897 Paris does an excellent job of expanding the character of the lawyer’s wife, Clarie, who is a history teacher at Paris’ Lycee Lamartine for girls, as she tries to help the family of a poor school employee.   The Italian family’s two daughters are friends with a Russian anarchist, but a single non-political act puts them in danger from both a relentless and aggressive police force and a disturbed killer. Clarie struggles with the decision to become involved, but eventually finds herself drawn, as a fellow mother, to help keep the family safe, though it leads her own family into trouble. Pope does a wonderful job of incorporating the many aspects of the time and setting: the city’s vibrant nightlife contrasting with its slums and poverty leading to sometimes violent bouts of class warfare; the prevalent ethnic prejudices and the beginning of the women’s and labor rights movements. I found the debut book in this series to be a bit slow, but this volume moved quite crisply. Also, it is not necessary to read the first two books prior to attempting this one.

Honorable Mention: I am always intrigued when events in a historical mystery parallel current events.  Two of the biggest stories this year were the ebola crisis and America’s citizens questioning the fairness of its justice system.  The third entry in Janet Kellough’s Thaddeus Lewis series set in eastern Canada in 1847 entitled 47 Sorrows deals with a murder during a time of massive immigration from Ireland due to the famine there and is complicated by the new arrivals suffering from a typhus epidemic. The descriptions of the procedures and policies of the 1840s were quite timely given the daily news about ebola.  Robert Harris’ stand-alone novel, An Officer and a Spy, is a fictionalized account of the Dreyfus Affair, which exposed corruption and racial prejudice in the 1890s French military justice courts.  Both books epitomized how we can put current issues in to a historical perspective.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

2014 Books of the year: Best Historical Mystery

December: time for the Books of the Year posts.  I will finish 140 books by the end of the year with more non-fiction than ever before.

Best Historical Mystery. The Devil’s Workshop by Alex Grecian. Because I read so many historical mysteries, it is hard for any one title to stand out from the crowd and, in fact, the last two years have seen few books do so … until now. Grecian’s third entry in his Scotland Yard Murder Squad series is simply outstanding. Detective Inspector Walter Day and Sergeant Hammersmith are awakened during an the early morning in April 1890 to recapture some escaped convicts from one of London’s prisons, but they wind up with much more than they can handle. Making the plot deliciously complicated and twisted are a vigilante group set on their own brand of justice and the infamous Jack the Ripper. Grecian manages to present both the mindsets of the villains and their blue-jacketed pursuers, insert some humor into a dark story, continue to develop some of the secondary characters and present an open-ended finish which will leave readers anxious for the next installment of this excellent series.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

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