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Reading Mark Twain is like walking in the mountains. You can only hike one trail at a time, so you must choose the vista you want to favor. Letters from the Earth, a short anthology of essays first published in 1962, is Twain as mid-century liberals chose to see him, a blazingly indignant social critic concerned with the rise of American imperialism or what he termed in the column’s hallmark essay, "To The Person Sitting in Darkness," “the blessings-of-civilization” game of dominion through development. Together with pieces about lynching, the Belgian Congo, the art of lying, and other abominations, the book helped reposition the folksy humorist as a baleful proto-radical, aligning him with the spirit of the age. There is a Twain for every mood and moment, and this is a Twain whose time has come again, wintry, stern, and sublimely disappointed. More from A Year in Reading 2014 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Of the many excellent books I've read this year, the one that has haunted me for months after finishing it is In the Beginning Was the Sea by Tomás González, a tiny novel about a young cosmopolitan couple's obsessive pursuit of a bohemian and utopian existence on a remote tropical island. Elena and J. have the world at their feet -- money, careers, and status in their hometown of Medellín -- yet it's not enough. They want something deeper, something more meaningful, and are convinced they know how to get it, buying property and setting up a home in a rural seaside community where they find themselves not entirely welcomed by locals. Even with daily setbacks, challenged by both the land and the people, they have so much faith in the sea outside their door that they refuse to give up on their idea of paradise or see how their dream is quietly destroying their lives. In spare language, short, clipped sentences, González offers a gorgeous yet utterly terrifying tale of how nature, humanity, and our own obsessions can betray us in the worst ways imaginable. Said to be based on true events, this is a story that I don't think I will ever be able to shake. More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
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Joshua Ferris' debut novel, Then We Came to the End - one of The Millions' Most Anticipated Books of 2007 - was a finalist for this year's National Book Award. It's due out in paperback this spring. Mr. Ferris' shorter fiction has appeared in the Best New American Voices series and the New Stories from the South series, and in The Iowa Review and Prairie Schooner. He lives in Brooklyn.The Ambassadors by Henry James is every bit as melancholy and masterful as it is exasperating and windy. You need one determined machete to make it through and at times the style is so overwrought and unnecessarily filigreed that I nearly gave up. But James is fiction's paradigm for the satisfaction of fighting the good fight, as by the end of The Ambassadors the entire world has been hauled into that thicket. I chose The Ambassadors as opposed to the other James I read this year because its subject is one of my favorites: life not lived to its fullest, squandered life, the search for how best to live. I also read Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays for the first time, a gift from my friend Ravi, for which I'll always been thankful. And Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones, the collection that includes "An Orange Line Train to Ballston," a story as deeply affecting as any I've encountered.More from A Year in Reading 2007
If you're interested in the history of the music industry, or have wondered idly how the song that's stuck in your head got to be there, you should read David Suisman's detailed and entertaining Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music (Harvard). Every page held a new discovery for me, from the competitive world of song pluggers (piano-and-crooner teams hired to perform songs in advance of the sheet music publication, often to "spontaneous" applause from plants in the audience), to the rise of the player-piano (in 1900, it would have been regarded as more potentially culture-transforming than phonographs), to the reason tenors surpassed sopranos in popularity (their voices better masked deficiencies in early recording), to Irving Berlin's nine rules—some seemingly contradictory—to writing a hit song. The chapter on Black Swan Records alone, which from 1921 to 1923 attempted to combine racial uplift with a viable business model, is worth the price of admission. Selling Sounds is a profound and fascinating book, not just for academics but for anyone with ears. As a chaser, I recommend Geeta Dayal's Another Green World, another excellent entry in the 33 1/3 series. It's as much a philosophy book as a "Behind the Music" breakdown, and an invitation to think creatively about creativity. You can't open the paper today—sorry, click open your favorite news source—without running into an article pondering China's shifting relationship with the U.S., often against a backdrop of sharp cultural differences. Mark Nowak's Coal Mountain Elementary finds the common denominator in accounts of coal-mining disasters—one in Sago, West Virginia, the others in China. None of the words here are Nowak's. Instead, he juxtaposes excerpts of Chinese newspaper reports with testimony transcripts (and elementary-school curricula) on the American side. The only original material consists of color photos by himself and Ian Teh, but Coal Mountain Elementary is altogether original, a words-and-image fusion that's at once simple and rarely seen—something with the energy of a link-rich website and the beautiful, horrible inevitability of a book. More from A Year in Reading
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