Books read in 2010

As I’ve done every January since 2004, I present here a list of the books I’ve read in the previous year, with commentary.

  • Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe
  • The Stranger, by Albert Camus (translated by Matthew Ward)
  • My Antonia, by Willa Cather
  • Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon
  • Utz, by Bruce Chatwin
  • Enemy at the Gates, by William Craig
  • The Story So Far…, by Sheldon Currie
  • Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion
  • Little Man, What Now, by Hans Fallada
  • The Garden of Eden, by Ernest Hemingway
  • Island, by Alistair MacLeod
  • Broken Glass, by Arthur Miller
  • Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller
  • Homely Girl, A Life; and Other Stories, by Arthur Miller
  • Murder over Dorval, by David Montrose
  • Judith Hearne, by Brian Moore
  • In the Lake of the Woods, by Tim O’Brien
  • The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien
  • A Day in Our Lives, by Seán O’Crohan
  • The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, by Sloan Wilson *
  • Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín
  • Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. *
  • Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, by Carl Wilson

* Read electronically.

That’s 23 books, significantly fewer than usual (my all-time high since I started logging was 38 books in 2007). That said, I do not feel that I read noticeably less last year. The difference is that I read more long form journalism than usual, and for that I thank my iPad and Instapaper, a combination that turns a slab of metal and glass into an amazing library of long articles curated by none other than yourself. While the same can be said of any Web-enabled device (such as a desktop computer or a laptop), the iPad/Instapaper combination puts the experience on a whole other level of portability, which I will talk more about in a future blog post.

In contrast with that very contemporary note, I seem to be continuing my fascination with mid-20th century prose. 12 of the titles (just under half) were published between the 1920s and the early 1960s. Six were published in the mid-60s to the mid-80s, and only five are “contemporary.” To my shame, only two were written by women.

Highlighted titles are the ones that really stood out for me. I’ll spare you the long reviews, largely because I’m an unreliable reviewer. A positive response does not always line up with a sober critical analysis, and that’s OK with me. Sometimes a book just bores into you and rubs up against something in your mind that triggers emotions and memories so strongly that almost make you feel high on chemicals. That’s purely subjective and has little to do with style or even story.

For example, The Garden of Eden is widely acknowledged to not be among Hemingway’s finest (it was incomplete upon his death and published posthumously) yet it had me reeling for balance and feeling knocked outside of myself for the couple weeks during which I read it. This kind of response is highly personal and has more to do with evocation and yearnings that with strict formal precision. In my case I have a real soft spot for the south of France (where most of the novel is set) and a hard-wired, knee-jerk romantic response to Hemingway’s time and the struggles of his characters.

And it doesn’t hurt that Hem was a master stylist.

The only book I put down unfinished in 2010 was The Liar’s Club, by Mary Karr. The book received a lot of attention when it came out in 1995, and was on the New York Times‘ Best Sellers list for over a year. That was 15 years ago, so I figured it was about time for me to give it a look. (If you haven’t noticed, I am completely unmoved by any sense of urgency when it comes to buying and reading books. They exist outside of time for me.) I can’t say for sure what made me put it down – that was more than six months ago and I took no notes – but I recall feeling bored and unmoved by the prose.

That’s surprising given the topic – a memoir of growing up in a small industrial town replete with various abuses of the mind and body. Gritty stuff, and something I can relate to. But it just didn’t seem very interesting. It felt like she was telling us instead of showing us, and I recall there being sweeping and expository comments about “society” that were written as if the author thought that everyone on Earth lives in the United States. To be fair, I didn’t get very far in, and perhaps it gets better further on. I should also note that I didn’t throw the book across the room, I just sort of put it down and never picked it up again.

Street Scene: Montreal and Beyond

It’s 2011, so the natural thing to do is launch a new photo blog! Announcing Street Scene: Montreal and Beyond, a new street photography blog from yours truly.

I know you’re all just boiling over with questions, so I have put together this handy FAQ to handle all your WTFs.

Street Scene FAQ

Q: Where are all the faces?

A: Street Scene grows out of an earlier experiment called From the Hip – Montreal, which was an exercise in street photography that purposely excluded people’s faces from the images. The reason for doing so is based in Aubry vs. Editions Vice Versa, a Supreme Court of Canada ruling that essentially makes it illegal to photograph people in Quebec without their permission. You can read a bit more about that on From the Hip‘s About page.

Street Scene re-uses many of the images from From the Hip – Montreal but removes the prohibition against visible faces. (I do this at my own risk.)

Q: Yeah, but where are all the faces?

A: Even though Street Scene is free of the “no faces” rule, that doesn’t mean it will be all about faces. Typically, the subject of street photography is people, and the context is their urban environment. Street Scene flips that. The subject of Street Scene is the urban environment, and the context is the people within it.

Q: So are you going to start shoving your camera in people’s faces?

A: Hardly. My predominant technique will still be “clandestine” and from the hip. But I’m not going to worry about including faces, and when the situation calls for it I’ll be as forward and unclandestine as any other street photographer.

Q: Why are some of the pictures blurry?

A: Street Scene is my personal view of the urban environment and the people in it. Sometimes that view is fuzzy, such as when the photograph is taken at night, in low light. This is not some exercise in image clarity or pixel peeping. This is a personal, subjective, and sometimes fuzzy view that I hope some people will find familiar, startling, or evocative.

Q: How often will you post photos?

A: At launch time (January 2011) I have several dozen images that I want to post, and will do so over the following months. After that I’ll post ’em as I make ’em. Bear in mind that my “from the hip” technique has a very high failure rate, and I’m not prolific in the conventional style. Weeks may pass without an update. And in winter this will be a virtual dead zone, as I don’t walk around with my camera in my un-gloved hands when it’s -20.

Q: Are you the only person doing this?

A: Not at all. There are many active street photographers, including some who shoot from the hip, such as Joe Wigfall (Flickr photostream, YouTube interview about shooting from the hip). Other personal favorites include Magnus Fröderberg (Sweden) and Alex Coghe (Rome/Mexico).

Q: How long will it take before you cash in?

A: HA HA HA HA!!! In the entire history of photography, the number of people who have “cashed in” on street photography can be counted on one hand. A few more than that have found a bit of fame (primarily in the “golden age” of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s), but hardly anyone has made any appreciable money at it. Street photography – especially in the digital age – is something you do entirely for artistic and expressive reasons, and for fun. There ain’t no money in it.

Q: OMG where’s the HDR?

A: Shut the fuck up and read this.

Q: Who are your main influences in photography?

A: The long list is endless and is based more on individual images than the photographers behind them. But there is a short list, and all of the people on it are from well before the digital age. The short list includes:

Sharp observers will notice that not all of these artists are street photographers. In fact, a bunch of them are from the New Topographics landscape photography movement of the 1970s. The New Topographics did and does have a strong influence on how I think about photography, as do those photojournalists and street photographers.

As you might imagine, you could hardly find two more disparate styles in photography than New Topographics and street photography. That’s a bit like combining Strauss waltzes and death metal, or rococco painting with abstract expressionism. But that’s what moves me so that’s what I’m stuck with. I’m formally a mess, but hopefully some of the photos on Street Scene will make a bit of sense anyway.

For a peek at a few of my New Topographics inspired images that are not at all “streety,” check out the Monday Morning Photo Blog, under the tag “new-topographics.”