This is my book diary for 2011…
HAVANA NOCTURNE by T. J. English
A book about the chapter of Cuban history made famous by Coppola’s Godfather sequel, in which mob bosses descended on Havana and built themselves an empire beyond the reach of United States law, only to have it smashed to pieces by the revolution. English follows Castro’s long road to victory and the development of Cuba’s heavily-connected casinos so well, I’m sure the interviews alone have landed him with quite the FBI file. Thankfully the work paid off–capitalism and socialism get equal screen time here, and the reader gets a clear view of what sucks worst about each of them.
THE VICTORIAN INTERNET by Tom Standage
This is a quick, informative account of the telegraph’s history, tracking its development, its proliferation, and its decline. It’s a fascinating look at the twin headaches of scientific and commercial endeavor, and since the telegraph’s story offers unmistakeable parallels to the world-changing effects of the internet, it’s also a kind of future history lesson—mostly about the dodgier aspects of global living that the internet won’t change.
UNCLE MAME: THE LIFE OF PATRICK DENNIS by Eric Myers
On the surface this is the story of Patrick Dennis, who wrote “Auntie Mame” and many other socialite-skewering satires of the sixties, but in telling that story, the book also explores how gay men survived (or didn’t) in an era when they were only partially able to recognize themselves. Dennis spends much of his life married with kids, then explores his sexuality during his life’s frantic “second act”, which soon devolves into a long, sad party. After he’s run out of cash, he at last finds some genuine peace as an undercover butler, and returns to his wife at the end of his life. One of the strangest, saddest arts biographies I’ve ever read, about one of the funniest people you’ll ever read about, there’s a lot to mull over here.
THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE WORLD by Mark Booth
Booth’s book re-envisions 3000 years of human history from a Fortean perspective, tying the major artistic, military and spiritual movements of earth into an eerily consistent tale of materialized thoughts, astrological influences, and vegetables that evolve into people. Not “history” in the strictest sense (or even the loosest) its audacity alone carries a kind of wallop, because Booth makes his preposterous claims so emphatically, so enthusiastically, you can’t help but want to come along for the ride. (“In 1274 in Florence a youthful Dante first saw the beautiful Beatrice. It was love at first sight. It was also the first time anyone fell in love at first sight.”) Believing the author’s assertions is not necessary to enjoy the book, because merely considering them has the effect of knocking down walls in your brain, making “Secret” a veritable light to gasoline for the imagination. One of the best things I’ve ever read, seriously.
THE INTUITIONIST by Colson Whitehead
A novel that wears its metaphors on its sleeve, “The Intuitionist” concerns a New-York-esque city’s first African-American female elevator inspector, and her quest to clear her name after she’s framed for a free-fall. For all its speculative flights of fancy (elevators are practically worshipped in this world, and some inspectors use a gentle form of clairvoyance to examine them) one thing Whitehead doesn’t mess with is how race is experienced in America, particularly in the big city–he captures a time when civil rights ideals were making their way into society, but only taking a tentative hold, and the tension and doubt are palpable. Of course, to say this is a book about racism would just be another way of pigeonholing it into a genre, which seems unfair with something this audacious. It’s certainly a story about asserting your own identity, as opposed to someone else’s version of it, and it’s anything but someone else’s version of a novel.
Here’s a link to my diary for the books I read in 2010.