Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Memorable Books of 2013

I originally wanted to call this post "The 10 Best Books I read in 2013" but then I realized that I can barely remember 10 books which I read front-to-back (or "highest to lowest bit, for eBooks" as Igor puts it). So without further ado I present you a list of books which I do remember having read in the past 12 months:

projekt@party (Beqë Cufaj)

I stumbled across this book via an online book-review one night, got the Kindle version, and promptly forgot about it again until I re-discovered it sitting on my Kindle at the beginning of the year. The center of the book is a German professor who leaves his messed-up home turf to work in international development for the United Nations in a country and society torn apart by (civil-)war. The country is vaguely set in the Balkans region which comes as no surprise given that the author Beqë Cufaj is from Pristina. In many ways projekt@party reminded me of Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures (Heidi Postlewait, Kenneth Cain and Andrew Thomson) (which I previously wrote about in February 2010) with a slightly more European tone and focus. The core themes in both books are the challenges encountered by people working in environments and cultures they don't really understand and the debauchery resulting from having too much money, too much spare time, and little local social fabric beyond an expat crowd. This may now sound a little shallow but projekt@party is a good and thought-provoking read and it will certainly have an additional appeal to people who often find themselves in environments similar to the one described in the book.

Water Music (T.C. Boyle)

On the back cover of this book you'll find this spot-on endorsement by Salman Rushdie which says: "Water Music goes over the top and also round the bend. It is a book in the worst possible taste, serves no useful purpose and is crammed with disgusting, filthy ideas. Its title will make Handel turn in his grave. It stinks of gin and Africa. It also bubbles, or should I says Boyles, with life, language, comedy, energy and other forms of weirdness." There's not much I can add to that except to say that I read the book while I was in Zambia and Laos at the beginning of the year and it was the perfect travel companion for all the places between Lusaka, Livingstone, Dubai, Luang Prabang, and Si Phan Don. Best enjoyed with a bottle of Mosi or Beerlao!

Learning to Change the World: The Social Impact of One Laptop Per Child (Charles Kane, Walter Bender, Jody Cornish, Neal Donahue)

I really should have done a longer book review after I reading it for OLPC News but unfortunately I never got around to doing it. The best way I've found to capture my thoughts and feelings while reading the book is the following: It's like spending an evening with a close friend you haven't seen in a while and three bottles of red wine. You'll hear things you haven't heard or see perspective you hadn't considered before, sometimes it's deeply reflective and thoughtful, at other times you'll have to stop yourself from laughing out loud because you'll hear absurd notions and remarks that will make you want to pull your hair out... And the next morning you'll wake up understanding your friend a little better and knowing that you had a good time. However you'll still not be able to decide whether it was worth the hangover which will overshadow the rest of your day.

Wie die Tiere (Wolf Haas)

The main reason why I read this detective story is because it's set in and around Vienna's 20th district where I currently live. Wolf Haas is a famous Austrian writer of such detective stories and crime fiction but somehow I had never gotten around to reading any of his books yet. However after reading this enjoyable story I'll definitely dive into some of his other books in the future.

Atlas eines ängstlichen Mannes (Christoph Ransmayr)

This book was a present from my parents for Christmas 2012 and for some reason I lost track of it until I found it amongst a stack of unread books in one of my shelves this summer. The book consists of several dozen short stories and impressions as experienced by the author during his extensive travels all around the world. To me reading the book felt like sitting down with a close friend and a glass of red wine and listening to his/her travel adventures and experiences for many hours. Simply put: I loved every minute of it!

Die Schrecken des Eises und der Finsternis (Christoph Ransmayr)

I had been meaning to read Ransmayr's famous book focused on the Austro-Hungarian North Pole Expedition from 1872-1874 for many years and after I was blown away by the aforementioned Atlas eines ängstlichen Mannes this was a no-brainer. And I wasn't disappointed because the depiction of the hardships endured by the crew during their 2-year journey but also everything that happened before and afterwards was simply breathtaking. Initially I wasn't entirely happy about the second storyline which is set in the present but towards the end I realized that it did have its merritts.

Burmese Days (George Orwell)

As Wikipedia puts it: "It is a tale from the waning days of British colonialism, when Burma was ruled as part of the Indian empire – "a portrait of the dark side of the British Raj." At its centre is John Flory, "the lone and lacking individual trapped within a bigger system that is undermining the better side of human nature."" Orwell is definitely one of my favorite 20th century authors. I particularly like his uncanny ability to accurately portrait seemingly out-of-the-ordinary societies and individuals in seemingly out-of-the-ordinary circumstances, regardless of whether it's in the famous 1984, Animal Farm or the lesser known Homage to Catalonia (Orwell's account of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War). Burmese Days is no exception and reading it while in Malaysia made it all the more powerful.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (William Kamkwamba, Bryan Mealer)

Of all the books I read in 2013 this is the one I've been meaning to read for the longest time. It was probably in mid-2010 when I first heard about William Kamkwamba's now famous TED talk in which he describes how the built a windmill in his Malawi hometown using scraps and knowledge learned from old science books he borrowed from a local library. The 6-minute TED talk is well worth watching but of course it doesn't really do his challenges, efforts, failures, and ultimate success any justice. To me the most memorable take-aways from the book were his chilling descriptions of the effects of extreme poverty and starvation on himself, the people around him, and Malawi society in general. His endurance and ultimate success is what made William TED-worthy so to say but that's really only half (or actually a quarter) of his powerful story.

The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins)

I had initially filed this book under "guilty pleasure" but after finishing it in 3 or 4 days straight I'll say that it was just a pleasure. Admittedly I have a thing for dystopian young adult fiction (e.g. last year I read Little Brother and Homeland by Cory Doctorow and loved both of them) but besides that Suzanne's Collins' book is simply a well-paced story, with an interesting heroine, and set in an interesting world. A perfect page-turner!

The Given Day (Dennis Lehane)

At just north of 700 pages this is certainly the longest book I read this year. And I read it in 4 short days around Christmas last week. Yes, it really is that good! The early 20th century setting, the extremely well developed characters, the detailed descriptions of Boston's streets and society, the interwoven story lines, etc. all make for an extremely compelling book. Oh, and if you like Boardwalk Empire you'll very likely also enjoy The Given Day as much as I did.

Now looking back at this list I realize that I read the majority of these books in the second half of the year. Or maybe I simply forgot about the ones I read in the first six months of 2013;-)

Anyway, last week I started reading The Yellow Birds (Kevin Powers) which Amazon describes as an "unforgettable depiction of the psychological impact of war, by a young Iraq veteran and poet" and I'm liking it so far. Sticking with the war theme I'll then probably dive into Die letzten Tage der Menschheit (Karl Kraus) which is set in World War I before deciding which of the many other books on my Kindle and shelf I'll tackle next.

Oh, and Happy New Year everyone! :-)

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