As Jan. 1 is the time for making resolutions for the new year, Christmas week is an occasion for looking back at the past year. Top ten lists are the customary device, so here’s mine: The ten best books I read this year.
A point I’ve mentioned in connection with previous lists of this sort is that they’re entirely expressions of personal taste. Also, this is a list of the best books I read in 2018, not of the best books published in 2018—after all, one dates back to 1885. As they say on the intertubes and the interstate highway system, your mileage may vary.
In any case, here they are in totally random order:
Harvey Sachs: “Toscanini: Musician of Conscience”
In 2017, the 150th anniversary of Arturo Toscanini’s birth occasioned a round of reconsiderations of the great conductor’s career and legacy — yet another round, one should say, for the careers of few musical figures are as regularly pondered as Toscanini’s.
That’s not surprising, because few have influenced the culture of two continents as profoundly as Toscanini. In Europe, he established new standards for the performance of opera and orchestral classics, then brought them to a post-war America thirsting for “culture,” via a groundbreaking series of Sunday evening radio performances that made him rich while filling the pockets of David Sarnoff’s NBC and RCA. He was a pioneer of recordings, which is why his interpretations still thrill us today.
Harvey Sachs’ biography appeared in 2017 not as a revision of his 1978 biography but an entirely new work, based on family archives that had been opened in the interim and tape recordings of conversations the conductor had with family members in the last years before his death in 1957. The result is a fascinating, uniquely illuminating look at more than a century of musical history.
Toscanini’s photographic memory, rigorous musicianship, and charismatic authority from the podium allowed him almost single-handedly to modernize performance standards in Italian opera at the turn of the last century. As Sachs observes, with the goal of placing the music, not social preening, at the forefront of the concert-going experience, he banned encores from the stage, mandated that the auditorium be dark during performances, and forbade audiences to move in and out of the hall while the musicians were playing. He didn’t invent these rules, but they were adopted only spottily until he put his foot down.
Toscanini’s outstanding skills brought him the musical leadership of La Scala, and subsequently to the Metropolitan Opera. Meanwhile, he had emerged as an advocate of the Italian risorgimento and an adversary of fascism — his popular standing made him one of Mussolini’s most dangerous opponents, as Il Duce discovered when he seized Toscanini’s passport and was forced to back down. He also was known as a compulsive seducer of his star sopranos; Sachs acknowledges the reality of contemporary mores by observing that “by today’s standards, Toscanini would be considered a sexual predator…. By the standards of his own day, he was merely promiscuous.”
The lives of only a handful of historical figures can fill a book of this one’s scale — Napoleon, Churchill..and Toscanini.
Ulysses S. Grant: “Personal Memoirs”
This year, I skipped past Ron Chernow’s biography of Grant, because I’d already read William S. McFeely’s 1981 biography and couldn’t imagine how much Chernow could add to that definitive portrait. But the publicity did send me to Grant’s 1885 memoirs, which are justly praised as a classic of Americana.
Grant wrote the two-volume work at Mark Twain’s urging and as a patrimony for his family. The work consumed him during his final, agonizing illness, but turned out to be an exceptionally lucid recounting of his early life and his service during the Mexican War and the Civil War. Grant left out any discussion of his presidency, which was soiled by a string of corruption scandals, largely because of his own inattention and the machinations of his friends and relatives.
But what’s left are vivid recollections of his military actions and his opinions about the folly and iniquity of the South’s warmaking to defend slavery — “As time passes,” he wrote, “people, even of the South, will begin to wonder how it was possible that their ancestors ever fought for or justified institutions which acknowledged the right of property in man.” Also remarkable are his judgments of the men he fought alongside, which are almost universally charitable even of those he plainly considered incompetent.
Of the many editions of the memoirs, I recommend the annotated edition published by Harvard University Press overseen by John F. Marszalek, director of the U. S. Grant Presidential Library at Mississippi State, for its invaluable notes identifying almost every personage mentioned by Grant, expanding on incidents and events Grant glosses over and even correcting his occasional misstatements.
P.G. Wodehouse: “The Code of the Woosters”
My nearest and dearest know that when dreariness and despondency rear their ugly heads in our home, I can be found with my nose buried in a volume of P.G. Wodehouse. I’ve got his works on permanent lifetime rotation, including the golf stories, the Mr. Mulliner stories, the Ukridge stories, and of course Bertie and Jeeves. As Evelyn Waugh said, they never stale.
This year “The Code of the Woosters” fell into the rotation. Wodehouse fans generally consider this the funniest of the Jeeves novels, with the possible exception of “Joy in the Morning.” What sets it apart is what may be Wodehouse’s lone foray into political commentary, the character Roderick Spode, a Mussolini-esque would-be dictator plainly modeled on the British fascist Oswald Mosley and the head of the “black shorts,” storm troopers dressed in soccer shorts because black shirts already were taken (by Mosley). Wodehouse plainly knew that the way to get under dictators’ skin was through ridicule, as when Bertie lets Spode have it right in the ribs:
“The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting, ‘Heil, Spode!’ and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: ‘look at that frightful ass swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?’”
Couple of points. “Footer bags”=Soccer shorts. And the best joke of the book, possibly in all of Wodehouse, involves the word “Eulalie.” Mention it to any Wodehouse fan and watch him or her dissolve in laughter.
Michael Benson: “Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke and the Making of a Masterpiece” and Dave Itzkoff: “Mad as Hell: The Making of ‘Network’
As I’ve been an obsessive fan of “2001: A Space Odyssey” since I first saw the film in true Cinerama upon its opening in 1968, the most surprising thing about Benson’s meticulous book about the movie’s genesis and production is how much of what he reports I didn’t know, or maybe knew and long ago forgot. This is as illuminating a window into Stanley Kubrick’s mind and personality as one is like to find in print. (For an equally illuminating view on film, I recommend “Filmworker,” an extraordinary documentary about Leon Vitali, who became Kubrick’s lifelong assistant and amanuensis after starting out as a bit actor on 1975’s “Barry Lyndon” and who, at the age of 70, is to this day the keeper of the Kubrick legend.)
Benson is especially good on the evolving relationship between Kubrick and Clarke, the original screenwriter and the original conception’s spiritual and intellectual guru — who disagreed with many of the director’s refinements and with his approach to publicity, among other things — and on the uneasiness among MGM executives who were forced by contract to let the filmmaker develop his masterwork largely out of their view. He’s excellent on the filmmaking technology behind “2001,” including the famous centrifuge that allowed Kubrick to simulate space travelers taking upside-down strolls on their spacecrafts’ 360-degree floors—but which showered camera operators with debris as it rotated.
As a companion piece to Benson’s book, I recommend “Mad as Hell,” Dave Itzkoff’s great read about the making of the film “Network” by screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky and director Sidney Lumet. I hated “Network” on first viewing in 1976, when it seemed over the top. Today, as has often been remarked, its vision of TV news handed over to the entertainment division, complete with on-air soothsayers, opinion pollsters, and anchorpersons valued for their insane ideologies, seems prescient.
Itzkoff traces the difficult gestation of “Network” — the fears of studio executives that it would tick off the television networks, concerns over its abundant talkiness, and Chayefsky’s obsessing over whether he was delivering a message and what that message was. Ultimately, it took more than a quarter-century for the message to sink in, and by then, sadly, it was too late.
David Bodanis: “Einstein’s Greatest Mistake”
One of the enduring mysteries of 20th century physics is the isolation of its greatest practitioner, Albert Einstein, from the mainstream of the science during the latter years of his life. Ensconced in the sinecure of the Institute for Advanced Study in leafy Princeton, N.J., he was still an object of veneration by the general public, but treated as a has-been by colleagues who were still working out the implications of his own greatest discoveries nearly a half-century after he published them.
The British science writer David Bodanis finds the solution to the mystery in Einstein’s resolute skepticism about quantum mechanics. He simply could not wrap his mind around a natural phenomenon based on probabilities rather than certainty: “I still do not believe that the Lord throws dice,” he wrote his contemporary Max Born in one of his myriad formulations of the same theme.
As Bodanis explains with great clarity, what Einstein may have overlooked is that God throws dice, but they’re loaded dice. One can say with certainty that half of the Carbon-14 in a given sample will decay in 5,730 years, but one can’t say when any particular atom of the isotope will decay — the certainty derives from the activity of billions and billions and billions of carbon-14 atoms over a time frame in which their collective probabilities resolve into a phenomenon detectable by human-made instruments.
More intriguingly, Bodanis traces Einstein’s determined resistance to quantum theory to a mistake he had made back in 1915, when he allowed himself to be persuaded to tweak a key formula in his General Theory of Relativity to conform to new observations, only to discover later from subsequent experiments that he had been right all along and that the tweak had been erroneous. The experience left Einstein more stubborn in his conviction of his infallibility, to the point where he allowed his vision of a perfectly concrete world to obscure what experimental results were telling his once-devoted colleagues — that nature at the quantum scale may be weird, but it’s real.
Nathan Hill: “The Nix”
Nathan Hill had published some short stories when this work appeared in 2016. For a first novelist, or even for a journeyman, it displayed an astonishing command of voice, structure and theme.
Some critics fault “The Nix” as overly digressive and diffuse. There’s nothing much to say about them, except they’re wrong. On the surface it’s the story of a second-level academic drone who learns that his mother — who abandoned him in childhood — has become the perpetrator of a minor but obsessively reported act of political violence and gets commissioned to write her biography. That hardly does “The Nix” justice. The book takes place in the worlds of academia, video games, political fashion, child abuse, puppy love and mature love, and moves from one to the other with wit, poignance and grace.
Alfred Doblin: “Berlin Alexanderplatz”
It’s possible that Alfred Doblin’s famously wild novel of Berlin in the Weimar era is, as many have said, untranslatable. But Michael Hofmann’s long-awaited translation must give as much of the flavor of Doblin’s slangy, noisy act of total immersion.
Superficially the story of Franz Biberkopf, a hapless laborer and would-be hood and pimp, “Berlin Alexanderplatz” is really the story of a place and time, bursting with color, pain and comedy, and boiling over in a narrative style that owes much to Joyce’s “Ulysses” but pulls the reader along, instead of leaving him behind. It’s a road map, a chronicle and a look into the life of a man who invariably makes the wrong decisions. Thanks are due to Hofmann for bringing it to a new generation of English readers.
John Anderson: “Art Held Hostage: The Battle over the Barnes Collection”
A chance viewing of Don Argott’s 2009 documentary “The Art of the Steal,” about the plotting to move the Barnes Collection to downtown Philadelphia from the suburban site chosen by its founder, sent me to this painstaking 2012 examination of the history of what is one of the outstanding private collections of impressionist and post-impressionist art in the world (the artwork seen here is a detail from Paul Cezanne’s “Flowered Vase.” The full story turns out to be much stranger, weirder and, in its own way, more corrupt than the documentary could ever tell.
Albert C. Barnes was a physician who made his fortune from a medicine to treat gonorrhea and associated infections, and managed to keep it by selling his company just before the 1929 crash. By then, he had turned himself into a serious and knowledgeable collector, and built a gallery for his immense holdings in the Main Line community of Merion, Pa.
Barnes kept a tight lid on his collection. During his life, it could be viewed only by appointment. Barnes himself was an obstreperous sort who cherished a multitude of feuds with, among others, his alma mater the University of Pennsylvania and Philadelphia social establishment, which encompassed the leadership of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. With those feuds still in full cry when he died in 1951, he left behind what amounts to a freak will in which the Barnes Foundation was left to Lincoln University, a small black college ill-equipped to manage a world-class collection.
What ensued were years of battles for control of the Barnes, a play of egos and wealth that forms the core of Anderson’s book. While the fights raged, the Barnes Foundation was failing—its endowment from Barnes was insufficient to pay for upkeep of the gallery, which placed the collection at risk. A possible solution of opening the gallery to large scale tourism horrified bucolic Merion.
Eventually, after intricate legal maneuvering, the entire collection was moved in 2012 to a new home in Philadelphia, into a painstaking replica of the interior of the Merion gallery. Art critics were divided, with some, including Christopher Knight of the Los Angeles Times, remaining unhappy, while others professed themselves to be pleasantly surprised at the resolution.
What remains clear is that the relocation finally opened up this outstanding collection to full public view. That points to a question that neither Anderson nor Argott adequately answers — what was wrong about moving the Barnes? It was locked in a community that didn’t want it, run by a board that couldn’t manage it, was all but invisible to the public and was threatened with physical deterioration. Yes, the move was the product of contests among self-interested and possibly corrupt interests, but didn’t it all work out in the end?
T.R. Pearson: “Eaglesworth”
Aficionados of southern fiction and hilariously satirical prose should start their exploration of T.R. Pearson’s work with his introductory 1985 novel, “A Short History of a Small Place,” a family and regional chronicle that established the author as an heir to William Faulkner and Eudora Welty (of the “Why I Live at the P.O.” era).
Pearson followed “A Short History” with a string of subsequent works that sometimes seemed to struggle to live up to the promise of the first, at least until he closed the circle with a sequel, “Glad News of the Natural World,” in 2005. But every single one is a gem in its way.