Monday, January 5, 2015

My Favorite Books Read in 2014



The time has arrived to look back on the books of 2014. Per my custom, I will refer to the books I completed reading this past year, regardless of their publication date. I confess, as usual, to have started but not completed a number of (very fine) books, as topical interests often lead me away temporarily. One of my new year’s resolutions will be to complete a number of works this year that I’ve started before, so hold on to your hats for the 2015! In addition, of course, I need to give a hat’s off tip to the Jaipur Literature Festival for introducing so many new works and authors to read. I write this with a twinge of sadness, as we’ll not be attending this year, at least not in person. 


Below are my favorites for the year culminating in my overall favorite. I warn you that I’ve left many fine works off my list, but one must have some whims. I invite all to share your favorites. (All links are to my reviews except for Capital and Transforming History, which link to Amazon.)



Capital: A Portrait of Twenty-first Century Delhi by Rana Dasgupta. I’m embarrassed to report that I’ve not written a review of this terrific book (something to remedy in 2015). We were introduced to it at JLF by no less a figure than William Dalrymple, who reported that it would replace his own City of Djinns as the book about Delhi. I’ve only dipped into City of Djinns, but if it’s anything like Capital, then it’s quite a book, too. Dasgupta, an NRI (non-resident Indian) moved to Delhi and began to chronicle life in the city, from the growing class of wealthy business owners and entrepreneurs to the destitute poor that try to eke out a living in the growing megalopolis. It’s a fine job of reporting, well written, and keenly observed. I can’t imagine a finer introduction to contemporary Indian urban life. (I’ve not read Beyond the Beautiful Forevers or Maximum City, but I’ll wager my assessment nonetheless correct, as Dasgupta covers the range of society. A hat-tip to the Glamorous Nomad for buying and reading the book first and passing on her enthusiasm for it.


Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity by Edward Slingerland. A superb marriage of humanistic learning and modern science, something I believe of the utmost value. 








 
Dante in Love by A.N. Wilson. #JLF author Wilson provides an excellent introduction to the work of this seminal author. A great prep for #Italy!2015. 








The Quiet American by Graham Greene. My affinity for Greeneland continues. A novel that captures American innocence gone amok, something that we still must wrestle with today. Not to mention, the novel highlights life in Southeast Asia and the burdens of human existence. 


The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama. While this year (2015) should see the addition of Fukuyama’s latest book to my list, this re-read was special for reasons that I’ve included in my review. Still powerful stuff. Has history ended? I don’t think so, but it’s certainly paused to take a breath before moving headlong into the future. History may regress, also, but all of this doesn’t negate Fukuyama’s brilliant insights. 






On Writing by Stephen King. Fun and informative. A delightful read. 











Harvest by Jim Crace. This novel by #JLF author Crace is another exhibit for the “why to attend JLF” file: you encounter authors previously unknown to you and then give them a try. Check. This is a really intriguing, interesting book. 


The Comfort of Saturdays: An Isabel Dalhousie Novel by Alexander McCall Smith. I’m smitten, what else can I write? 


Emotional Awareness: A Conversation Between the Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman. Another re-read, but a fine one and well worth it. Another example of science and humanism speaking together to further human understanding. (And I should note, #JLF author the Dalai Lama!)









The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. My favorite “living better” book for the year. (I prefer “living better” to the designation “self-help”.)


The Art of Travel by Alan De Botton. Reflections on travel. Essays that explore travels in the past and in the present by his use of personal experience and reflections on other writers. Engaging writing that prompts reflection. 









The Fourth Turning: Imagining the Evolution of an Integral Buddhism by Ken Wilber. The prodigious Wilber works to take Buddhism into the 21st century. As always, a provocative (in the good sense) synthesis of perspectives and fields. 


Stalin’s Ghost: Arkady Renko #6 by Martin Cruz Smith. In a year filled with Greene, Ambler, Rankin, Kannon, and others, it’s hard to pick a favorite in the detective-espionage genre, but I’m going to go with this one. A mystery, but also a revelation. 


 The Murder of Roger Ackroyd  by Agatha Christie. This book is a classic and therefore apart from the others noted above. How important? R.G. Collingwood, her contemporary, used the detective novel (and a Christie-like plot) as a model for historical inquiry. Of course, it’s quite fun as well. And to me, it’s primal. 








Making Make-Believe Real: Politics as Theatre in Shakespeare’s Time by Garry Wills. Wills, Shakespeare, politics: what more could one want? I haven’t found much in the way of reviews of this book, but that’s a shame (and surprising given Wills’s stature). Not his greatest, but very fine and enlightening. 






A Gradual Awakening by Stephen Levine. A beautiful, wise, instructive book. A re-read because of its continuing value. 

The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense by Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr: we should read him on a regular basis.














World Order by Henry Kissinger. Kissinger possesses a deep knowledge of the world of international affairs from both practical experience and profound learning. Published at age 91, he still has a great deal to share about the relations between nations. We experience a lifetime of learning in this book. 






 

History Man: The Life of R.G. Collingwood by Fred Inglis. This is a case study of how to make the seemingly mundane life of a little-known British philosopher into an engaging story of an individual and his important contribution to history and philosophy. A very pleasing discovery. 






 
Transforming History: A New Curriculum for a Planetary Culture by William Irwin Thompson. An ideal school curriculum for K-12. It integrates sciences and the humanities, and it’s full of the insights of William Irwin Thompson. (Amazon link, as I haven’t reviewed it yet.)








Now for the finalists: 
William (Patrick) Ophuls
Runner-up: A three-way tie between three books by my favorite new (to me) author discovered this year: William (Patrick) Ophuls. His books: Plato’s Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology; Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail, and The Buddha Takes No Prisoners: A Meditator’s Survival Manual. Ophuls combines science, a deep understanding of politics and society, humanism, and Buddhism to provide profound insights into our public world as well as how to live our individual lives. A great discovery. 




And the winner is . . . 


Iain McGilchrist
The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern World by Iain McGilchrist. If I find one recurring theme in favorites this year, it’s the need to re-unite the sciences and the humanities. C.P. Snow noted the split in the 1950s in his The Two Cultures, but it probably goes back at least the advent of modernity, if not further. The divorce hurts us, its children. We need to re-unite these perspectives, as several of the books on my list do. And, of all of those books, this book probably does it best job of bringing an insightful perspective about the nature of the split and how we might reconcile the parties. It’s not an easy book, but this literature professor turned psychiatrist pulls it off brilliantly. I recommend that you start with his RSA presentation linked in my review and then dive into the deep water of this book.