"A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter" by William Deresiewicz
In another writer's hands, the revealed details might add up to something — a character we understand, a person we care about. In fact, in Jane Austen's hands, they probably would. But Deresiewicz, as clever a reader as he may be, is not much of a memoirist. He doesn't sketch out a clear self-portrait on the page — and with this center missing, the lessons he's learning come across as unfelt and academically constructed.
"Among the Truthers" by Jonathan Kay
Still, Kay ends on an admirable note. As his research progressed, he came to realize that his initial assumption that a distinct class of pathological crazies could be identified was mistaken. “This realization,” he writes, “has taught me to be careful about my own ideological commitments. . . . It has made me more self-aware when I bend the rules of logic in the service of ideology or partisanship.” In a book that often suggests the grown-ups are not all right, it’s a refreshingly mature confession.
"The Long Goodbye" by Meghan O’Rourke
O’Rourke’s book doesn’t tell me what to do with my grief, or provide overly generalized statements on what it means to mourn—and in that sense it might be one of the least judgmental memoirs I have ever read. Instead of judging, O’Rourke presents the intimate details of the loss of her mother, and by diving all the way down to the bottom of her sorrow, O’Rourke steeps the reader in her experience. Because every line she writes is so truthful, so unblinkingly direct, every sentence knocks the reader right back into her own aching memories.
"The Color of Night" by Madison Smartt Bell
With “The Color of Night,” Madison Smartt Bell delivers a superheated noir potboiler of unrelenting savagery that assumes proportions that are either cosmic or comic, depending on your taste for such things. The novel may make you cheer or vomit, but I guarantee you won’t read anything else like it this year.
"Sex, Bombs and Burgers" by Peter Nowak
This is a breezy, accessible book. I would have preferred something a little more pretentious, with some continental intellectual flashiness thrown in (I'd also have liked an index; the absence of one is almost insulting). But then that is just me; and the connections Nowak makes may well form the basis for the kind of thing I'm hankering after. And his conclusions are indeed thought-provoking. You can think of it, if you wish, as a modern version of Mandeville's The Fable of the Bees, which proposed that society's vices are actually good for overall economic health.
"The Psychopath Test" by Jon Ronson
Ronson has an eye for the absurd, but he also has a heart. He decides, toward the book's end, that he'll attend a hearing about Tony's case. All of his research shows that as much as he — and society — want to use checklists to determine who's bonkers, sanity usually rests in the hands of the definers.