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My Top Ten of 2014 - Charles M.

The Tale of the HeikeRamsey County Library staff's Top Tens keep coming.  Today's list comes to you from Charles M. of RCL - SV.  "These were the ten best books I read this year. A mix of current and classic, fiction and non-fiction."

FICTION

Seiobo There Below (Laszlo Krasznahorkai) is a mad, brilliant collection of extremely long sentences that form a novel without any recurrent characters or plot, only themes accumulated and combined (via the Fibonacci sequence) with sadness, humor, and exasperation from one story to the next, dealing with the lack of connection art and ritual have to today's world and the feeling that we are situated in the twilight years of human civilization, with few great works of art left to be created. This perhaps being one of them.

Spring Snow (Yukio Mishima). No one writes stories of doomed love better than the Japanese, and this is as good as they come. Set in the rapidly westernized Taisho era, this first novel in Mishima's Sea of Fertility tetralogy delves through layers of psychology and Buddhist notions of reincarnation to explore the divide between cerebral logic and the purity of passion.

L'Assommoir (a.k.a. The Drinking Den) (Emile Zola) is a gritty account of the rise and fall of Gervaise, an earthy laundress in the slums of Paris whose attempts to rise out of poverty are gradually squashed by the self-destructive effects of alcoholism. Zola's tragedy is entrenched in the vernacular of the Parisian proletariat, through which his flawed characters come alive, but he tempers our identification with his distanced if compassionate narration.

Jealousy (Alain Robbe-Grillet) is a dreamlike, anti-psychological novel of virtually nothing but austere visual description, with a fluid sense of time that is anything but linear, ever hinting at events that may or may not have happened in and around an acutely rendered Jamaican plantation house. The jealousy, which never so much as broaches the surface, seemingly belongs to the dispassionate narrator, whose presence in the story can only be inferred from the otherwise inexplicable absences in spatial description. Bold and original.Capital

The Tale of the Heike (Unknown), recently translated by the superlative Royall Tyler, is an epic tale chronicling the downfall of the Taira (Heike) clan in 12th century Japan. Suffused with an awareness of the transience of all things and karmic notions of causality, it has proven to be one of the most influential stories in the Japanese canon.

NON-FICTION

Against Interpretation (Susan Sontag) is a collection of critical essays, written in the early to mid-1960s, covering a range of artworks across various mediums: literature, film, theater, and even happenings. Sontag is a passionate intellectual who seems to be working out her own theories of art in these criticisms, which are provocative, sometimes even maddening, but always well reasoned and insightful. The titular essay is particularly inspirational, challenging us to open our senses and stop applying interpretative frameworks upon the books, movies, plays, or music we consume.

Capital in the 21st Century (Thomas Piketty) is an extensively researched treatise on capitalism and inequality that has the benefit of computerized analysis of statistical data, tabulated well over a century and from various parts of the world, where previous great minds in this field were hindered by anecdotal evidence and a much shorter time span to analyze. Piketty has the data to prove that twentieth century notions of capitalism's self-correcting features were anomalous and that global inequality is rising at alarming rates, which ought to be offset, he argues, with a highly progressive taxation on capital. He presents all this with a conversational voice that makes this 685-page tome engaging and digestible to the layperson.Kon Tiki

Kon Tiki (Thor Heyerdahl) traces one of the great adventures of the twentieth century. Thor Heyerdahl's incredible account of his own voyage across the Pacific ocean on a balsa wood raft, a go for broke attempt to prove an unpopular theory about human migration, is both a riveting story of man's triumphant survival among the elements and a testament to human ingenuity.

Manufacturing Consent (Edward S. Herman & Noam Chomsky) is an eye-opening critique of the American mass media's bias and its accountability in subtly advocating on behalf of the dominant political ideologies of this country. This is a fact-driven book that nevertheless comes to conclusions that are at odds with some of our most common understandings of major political and militaristic events of the last fifty years. It's a bit of a chore, and the 1980s perspective on US foreign policy focuses on examples less topical today (e.g., Guatemala, Cambodia), but the general insight is still relevant to any progressive understanding of the media's role in shaping our worldview.

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (David Bordwell) is one of the most enlightening pieces of film analysis I've read in years. Bordwell painstakingly illustrates Ozu's playfully rigorous techniques, from his narrative and visual parallels, symmetries, and repetitions to his arbitrary self-imposed restrictions, creating a body of work that engages the viewer through multiple ways: structural patterns, literary themes, and even as comedic entertainment. Note: this book is difficult to find in print, but it can be read in its entirety for free through the author's personal website.

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