Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Books of '12: recommendations

Having told you what not to read (IMHO), today I supply my recommendations from this year's reading.  It turns out, I liked a lot of books in 2012.  I don't even mention JR Moehringer's The Tender Bar below, but that one's awfully good, too.

Best of the year: memoir

Wherever I Wind Up; My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball, R.A. Dickey,  2012
(This one made it into my post recommending baseball books earlier this year.)
I heard R.A. Dickey interviewed - where else? - on Fresh Air.  When I heard that his new autobiography, written with journalist Wayne Coffey, covered not only his development as a knuckleball pitcher but also his childhood abuse history, I was intrigued.  I've read lots of baseball books, and the first person baseball autobiography always puts me in mind of Jim Bouton's Ball Four.  The difference between that book and this one - besides, oh, 42 years - is that Bouton was a self-unaware @$$hole of the first order.  Dickey comes across as much more humble.  His relationship with Jesus forms the centerpiece of his life story.  The book could have been subtitled "Grief, Jesus and Baseball".  Those who aren't so fond of God's Only Begotten may not enjoy this book as much as I did.  Dickey appears to leave nothing on the table.  Some details are only alluded to, but he really comes out with lots of tough stuff in his background,.  The book is not always well-written, especially early.  A memorably banal sentence that starts a chapter irked me: "My favorite time of the year was Christmas."  How many millions of people could have written that sentence about themselves?  It gets better though, and the book hits its stride as Dickey turns to both honesty and the knuckleball in parallel strains of desperation.

Best of the year: science made popular

The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg, 2012

A fascinating book unlocking secrets (hidden in plain sight) about how habits work in our lives.  Unfortunately, I didn't write this review right after I finished the book (as is my habit), so I've already forgotten some details.  The key framework is that habits work via a three-step process: a cue, followed by the routine, followed by a reward.   Duhigg applies this framework to everything from an afternoon cookie habit to alcoholism and gambling addiction.  Along with negative habits, Duhigg recounts how exercise and better eating habits can be cultivated and maintained.  He also covers organizational habits and how changing habits can change the fortunes of a company.  For this material, he cites Paul O'Neill's focus on safety when he arrived at Alcoa.  He also talks about why 12-step programs seem to work even though they lack any essential scientific soundness.  The author event tries to turn the book into a self-help book by publishing a "how to use this framework" section for the reader to attack personal habits or form new ones. 

Second best of the year: science made popular

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney, 2011

I saw an Atlantic Monthly review of Willpower and was glad to find that it was easily available in the marvelous Carnegie Library system.  Baumeister and Tierney have written an unusual book.   Mostly, it compiles scholarly research on the topic for non-academic civilians.  Perhaps not surprisingly after The Power of Habit, it also converts itself into a brief (more successful) self-help manual for how the reader can increase his/her willpower.  I'd heard about some of the studies before, but they're fascinating all compiled like this.  Findings include: after making decisions, our willpower diminishes; to do lists work (if done the David Allen/Getting Things Done way); willpower is like a muscle in that it can be strengthened through practice; telling yourself you'll eat a sweet thing later can help you not eat it now; then later, you won't feel the need to eat it as much because deciding you'd have it gave you the "I got a treat" feeling in the first place.  There's also a chapter on the role of 12 step groups and other mutual-willpower-enforcing strategies. 

To summarize their prescription: know your limits, watch for symptoms of depletion, pick your battles, set goals, monitor your progress, keep track and reward yourself. 

Best of the year: manifesto

The War of Art, Steven Pressfield, 2002

I heard about this book on Marc Maron's podcast (in a somewhat dismissive context) and from our Associate Rector, Josh Miller (in a rather reverential tone).  Having read this slim volume, I can understand the latter better than the former.  Pressfield describes what he believes holds writers and other creative people back, a vague internal force he labels "resistance".   In the first third of the book, he describes that many forms resistance may take.  Wily and creeping, this malign enemy will linger and lurk and thwart.  In the second third of the book, he describes what he calls "going pro".  Pressfield believes to be a professional, a writer must write for at least four hours a day.  He doesn't go into as much detail as I would like about how one arrives at the pass wherein one can do that.  The classic question to ask an author is about his or her process.  The audience always wishes that there will be a magic formula to follow.  In describing the pro state so wanly, I believe he hopes to dispel the notion of magic.  It's work, and you do the work by doing the work.  In the final third of the book, he describes the spiritual dimension that he sees in the creative realm.  He believes in angels and muses and God and believes that if we will call on these positive forces, they will help us to overcome resistance.  The book inspires and stimulates and is difficult to describe.  An interesting note: I got excited about the book and wanted to buy it for some friends.  I expected to find used copies of a ten-year-old paperback for cheap.  No such luck.  The market holds the book in such reverence that used copies are priced the same as new.

Best of the year: fiction

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson, 2004 (Pulitzer Prize for fiction, 2005)
The first blurb on the back cover of the edition of Gilead that I read called it "demanding".  That's accurate.  The same blurb called it grave and lucid, which are also true.  The book simmers very gently for a long time.  One thing that makes it demanding is that - it being essentially letters written by an older father convinced he's close to death to his young son - it lacks dialog, especially in its first half.  Other books that tell a story without using dialog have shown me that this narrative tactic can indeed be quite demanding on the reader.  Add to this the fact that the narrator describes several generations of men who were all preachers of one kind or another, and it gets confusing in addition to gravely and lucidly demanding.  To my mind, the book started paying off when I realized how rarely we hear from our old men speaking frankly about their emotions.  Then, it started to pay off more by actually narrating events happening in the present, rather than just philosophy and family history.  And, in the end, the reader finds that that history matters substantively to the story that eventually plays out.  Stick with it if you dare.  It will pay off. 


Lauren Jackson said...

Though we didn't read it this year, Mike and I loved The Tender Bar. I also liked Animal, Veg, Min, though I certainly agree with you about your well-chosen maudlin quotation. I didn't notice as much when I was reading it, but I also skimmed some. I'm amazed by the variety of your reading.

Azure said...

I did read a sort of baseball book called the Art of Fielding.

I thought of you when I saw this magazine:


JFo said...

Lauren, variety is the spice of life, and my reading moods change frequently. Tender Bar was sad but also wonderful.

Tirzah, I just ordered the Kindling Quarterly. Funny to see a new cultural item about fathers on a mom blog. There certainly seem to be more mom blogs than dad blogs. How did you like The Art of Fielding?

Anne H. said...

Hey Jeff, this was interesting. I've had The Power of Habit in my Amazon "Saved for Later" for ages. Do you have a copy? I'l like to borrow if possible. The book I'm looking forward to reading is Wild by Cheryl Strayed. Recently I've been reading a lot of dog books — a specialized interest.

Azure said...

It's good. It started out slow (sooo many male characters), but very enjoyable by the end. It's an Ivy League-esqe fairytale with a lot of Melville allusions thrown in.