Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Non-fiction Books of Last Year

It is already more than a month into the new year... It somehow remained in drafts. Forgot the publish. Anyway, here's a list of all the non-fiction books I read last year.

Russian Thinkers by Isaiah Berlin: I have praised this book many times before. This is really a great collection of essays and will interest anyone interested in literature, history and politics and specially how they are related to each other. The book contains his famous essay on Tolstoy's philosophy of history The Hedgehog and the Fox and his appreciations of his intellectual hero Alexander Herzen. My personal favourite though was the fifty page long essay on Turgenev. Berlin brilliantly recounts the publishing and reception history of Turgenev's most famous and controversial novel Fathers and Sons and analyses his position and difficult predicament in the political debates of his time in a way that sheds some light on many of the political confusions of our time too. This book is absolutely indispensable for anyone interested in Russian literature or intellectual history or in general history of Ideas.

Views from the other shore: Essays on Herzen, Chekhov and Bakhtin by Aileen Kelly: Kelly's book is in similar vein as Isaiah Berlin. In fact Berlin's book contains a fantastic introduction written by her. She was one of his students at Oxford. The Herzen essays are a little technical specially for someone not intimately familiar with Hegel and German romanticism. The essays on Chekhov and Bakhtin are fantastic introductions to their works and very insightful in the way she draws her political conclusions from their works. Like Berlin, she is also critical of the Messianic tendencies in Russian intelligentsia, both on the left and right, though in the end most of her essays are essentially reactionary in conclusions.

Straw Dogs by John Gray: Fantastic survey of misanthropic thought in western philosophy. It is more like snapshot view and written in a staccato style but quite good. He says that platonic ideals of beauty and truth cause wars and destruction and language is harmful because it makes possible to think such abstract thoughts and so many other things. I will just point to the hilarious review by Terry Eagleton.

Marcel Proust: A life by Edmund White
Proust Among the Stars by Malcolm Bowie
Proust's Way: A Field Guide to In Search Of Lost Time by Roger Shattuck
Swann's Way: The Comic Book
I wanted to read some secondary literature on Proust (i know a comic book is not a secondary text but still!). The Edmund White biography is short and a fantastic introduction to his life. He doesn't have much to say about the novel but he unearths lots of real life personalities and connects them to figures in the book, not really to explain the work, but rather to paint a portrait of society that Proust moved in. Shattuck's book is a little disappointing. It's a hodge podge of his miscellaneous essays published here and there. It could have been much better if it were just a collection of essays and no attempt were made to connect all the essays into a narrative. I will write about it sometime. I didn't really read all of Bowie's book but I got it very cheaply at a booksale and it looked very beautiful. The book is divided into chapters titled Sex, Politics, Self, Mortality etc and each chapter is a mini-essay on the topic as explored by Proust. Bowie assumes intimate familiarity with the book which I didn't have. I have put it aside for future reading. Also via, RSB blog, Bowie died last Sunday. Here's the link for more info. Also I found the comic book very amusing. My post here.

Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years by Brian Boyd
Lectures on Russian Literature by Vladimir Nabokov:
I had read Boyd's second volume The American Years last year. It is of course a great work of scholarship but even the most ardent of Nabokov's admirers will find Boyd's enthusiasm and awe of his subject a little boring after a while. In any case Russian years reads more like an extended annotation to Nabokov's own Speak, Memory, perhaps his greatest masterpiece and my favourite. Nabokov's famous snobbery is in full display in his lectures on Russian writers, specially in his essay on Dostoevsky. He is never boring, just that you may not agree with his ideas about what literature should be.

The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen: Good thought provoking essays written in a lucid and enjoyable style. Specially liked the pieces when he demolishes the arguments that scientific rationality is a western import and we in the east have our own ways of finding what is true and what is not... Just that I was irritated by the repetition of Ashoka and Akbar and how he goes on and on about communal harmony as practiced by these enlightened kings. Also the fact that you can find historical figures like Gargi or Maitreyi doesn't exonerate Hinduism of misogyny and deliberate exclusion of women from "the argumentative tradition." They are at best exceptions to the rule!

The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon Didn't help me cheer up (actually made me even more depressed) but there was a lot of very interesting, though not always useful, information in it. The "atlas" in the title is justified. The only thing that irritated me was the way he interspersed his main narrative with the story of his own nervous breakdown. Still he is a good writer and he saves it from becoming a self-obsessed and narcissistic narrative. I would have preferred a more scholarly tone. I am looking for more books on madness etc I will have to browse around in the library.

Communism: A History by Richard Pipes: Good overview and as expected from a veteran cold warrior, he is extremely critical of Bolshevism and its legacy. Still very informative for beginners.

Derrida for Beginners: Haha! Well I learnt a few words... "logocentrism" and even better "phallogocentrism"!!

Flaubert and Turgenev: A Friendship in Letters Old age! So frightening and depressing!! My post here.

Understanding W. G. Sebald: Understood a lot about his books. Great survey of his books and their reception.

Bound to Please by Michael Dirda: If only more newspaper reviews were like the ones collected in this volume. Old post here.

Lust by Simon Blackburn
Sloth by Wendy Wasserstein:

Two of my favourite vices (jealousy is another one). Good lightweight entertainments. I had written about them here and here.

Post about fiction books here.


Antonia said...

oh you have the Bowie book. it's a good one. not so self-congratulatory as so many other Proust books. do you have the yellow hardcover edition? It's beautiful. and the poor guy died. Shame.

Antonia said...

and sucha lovely title it is: 'Proust among the stars'

Alok said...

Added the pic! Yeah it a beautiful cover and a beautiful title. and i got it very cheap in just 3$! not even the price of a sandwich :)

I read parts of it. It is a great example of thematic criticism... and it avoids all the jargons too. I have kept it aside for future reading now.