Results for “michael hofmann”
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The superb Michael Hofmann

…the outstanding recent life of Brecht was by Stephen Parker; while in 1991 and 2000 the Cambridge scholar Nicholas Boyle brought out the first two volumes of what will surely be the definitive life of Goethe (1749-1832), at 800 and 950 pages; with luck, Boyle will live to Goethe’s age (82) or beyond, and complete the third and concluding volume. When Boyle tells you in his first paragraph that “the mail from London to Edinburgh took over a week, Moët and Chandon had begun to export the recently invented champagne, and a pineapple cost as much as a horse,” I for one signed up for all two or three thousand pages.

That is from his NYT review of Rüdiger Safranski’s Goethe: Life as a Work of Art.  It is so far my favorite review of the year.  Here is another good part:

When the young duke reeled him in, the barely older Goethe performed the duties of a cabinet minister. He built roads. He oversaw mines. He was put in charge of a theater. He shrank the deficit. He was someone at court. He put Weimar on the map. He met Napoleon, he met Beethoven. He corresponded with Wilhelm von Humboldt. He helped Schiller run a literary magazine. He was, Safranski writes, “a remarkable event in German intellectual history” — but “an event without consequences,” as Nietzsche said, sounding more than usual like Oscar Wilde.

There is something almost clownishly omni-competent about Goethe. He was a great beginner who ultimately finished most of the things he began. (“Faust,” which he had on the go for about 60 years, was completed in the last year of his life; Rilke’s “Duino Elegies” look by comparison like something finished the following morning.) He was interested in geology and anatomy, he developed a theory of color, he made watercolors and sketches himself, 3,000 of them. He went looking for something called the Urpflanze — the basic, or original, or prototypical, plant. He acted in his own plays. He wrote poems in many modes effortlessly. They entered the language (German, that is). When he finally grew frustrated with his married friend Charlotte von Stein, he eloped with Italy for a couple of years. He buried his wife; he buried his one surviving son. He buried his best friend, who died at 45. Near the end of his life, he gave perhaps the best description of himself, as “a collective singular consisting of several persons with the same name.” We rarely see or feel the hand in the many glove-puppets.

Here are earlier MR posts on Hofmann, one of the most underrated writers and thinkers today.

Other essential books of 2014

A few weeks ago I listed the best non-fiction books of 2014, here are a few which I either forgot or were late coming to my attention or were published or shipped after the first list.  These are all very, very good:

1. Adam Tooze, The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of World Order, 1916-1931.  This one also starts slow but after about 13% becomes fascinating, especially about the internal politics in Germany and Russia, circa 1917-1918.

2. Michael Hofmann, Where Have You Been?: Selected Essays.  Excellent and informationally dense literary essays, I especially like the ones on the German-language poets and writers, such as Benn and Walser and Bernhard and Grass.

3. Henry Marsh, Do No Harm, a neurosurgeon does behavioral economics as applied to his craft.

4. Philippe de Montebello and Martin Gayford, Rendez-Vous, a discursive chat while looking at some classics of art

5. Clive James, Poetry Notebook 2006-2014.  A superb book, one of the very best appreciations of poetry and introductions to poetry of the 20th century.  This book has received raves in the UK, it is not yet out in the U.S.

In fiction, to supplement my earlier list, I recommend:

6. Hassan Blasim, The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq.  Short stories about the conflict in Iraq, by an Iraqi.  I expected to find these widely heralded stories to be disappointing, as the premise is a little too easy for the Western critic to embrace.  But they are excellent and this book is one of the year’s best fiction releases.

7. Andy Weir, The Martian.  Ostensibly science fiction, but more a 21st century Robinson Crusoe story — set on Mars of course — with huge amounts of (ingenious) engineering driving the story.  Lots of fun, many other people have liked it too.

8. Geoffrey Hill, Broken Hierarchies, Poems 1952-2012.

By the way, Uwe Tellkamp’s The Tower [Der Turm] is now out in English.

What I’ve been reading

1. Hassan Blasim, The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq.  Short stories about the conflict in Iraq, by an Iraqi.  I expected to find these widely heralded stories to be disappointing, as the premise is a little too easy for the Western critic to embrace.  But they are excellent and this book is one of the year’s best fiction releases.

2. Michael Hofmann, Where Have You Been?: Selected Essays.  Excellent and informationally dense literary essays, I especially like the ones on the German-language poets and writers, such as Benn and Walser and Bernhard and Grass.

3. Andy Weir, The Martian.  Ostensibly science fiction, but more a 21st century Robinson Crusoe story — set on Mars of course — with huge amounts of (ingenious) engineering driving the story.  Lots of fun, many other people have liked it too.

4. Andrew MacGregor Marshall, Kingdom in Crisis: Thailand’s Struggle for Democracy in the 21st Century.  It is hard for me to judge the specifics of the argument, still this is a readable and conceptual account of the mess that is Thai politics, namely that much of it is about royal succession.  If true, this is a very good book.

Arrived in my pile is Amy Finkelstein, Moral Hazard in Health Insurance, with Gruber, Arrow, and Stiglitz as commentators.

The worst part of one of this year’s best pieces

I loved the Michael Hofmann review of Stephen Parker’s Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life in the 15 August 2014 Times Literary Supplement.  Every paragraph of that review is a gem and Hofmann calls the book perhaps the greatest literary biography he has read.  I’ve ordered my copy.

Here is one part of that review, toward the end, which caught my eye:

I’m not really sure what the case against Brecht is.  That he treated women and co-workers badly?  That he played fast and loose with the intellectual property of others, but was litigiously possessive of his own?  That he wrote no more hit shows after The Threepenny Opera?  That he failed to crack America?  That he wouldn’t denounce the Soviet Union?  That he was drab and a killjoy?  That he had it cushy after settling back in East Germany in 1949?  That he was consumed with his own importance?

Perhaps the Parker book will change my mind, but for now file under “All of the Above.”

Addendum: Here is another superb Michael Hofmann review.

What I've been reading

1. Sunil S. Amrith, Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants.  Not thrilling, but a well-informed, readable book, full of good information, about a part of the world which is growing in importance rapidly.

2. Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony.  This is a remarkably good, serious, detailed, and documented work on what we (possibly) know about the Gospels, if we read them through the lens of being eyewitness testimony.  Anyone interested in The New Testament should read this book.

3. Lara Feigel, The Love-Charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War.  This book chronicles some fairly intense love affairs, albeit in an intellectual sort of way.

4. Jonathan Franzen, editor, The Kraus Project.  The Karl Kraus texts in German are energetically written, but one remembers how cantankerous and idiosyncratic he was.  The Kraus translated into English doesn’t work and probably the works are untranslatable.  The Franzen in English is cringe-worthy.  The Michael Hofmann review in TNYRB is one of the best book reviews I have read, ever, gated here.

Arrived in my pile are:

5. Brigitte Granville, Remembering Inflation, and

6. Dwight H. Perkins, East Asian Development: Foundations and Strategies.

What I’ve been reading

1. Sunil S. Amrith, Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants.  Not thrilling, but a well-informed, readable book, full of good information, about a part of the world which is growing in importance rapidly.

2. Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony.  This is a remarkably good, serious, detailed, and documented work on what we (possibly) know about the Gospels, if we read them through the lens of being eyewitness testimony.  Anyone interested in The New Testament should read this book.

3. Lara Feigel, The Love-Charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War.  This book chronicles some fairly intense love affairs, albeit in an intellectual sort of way.

4. Jonathan Franzen, editor, The Kraus Project.  The Karl Kraus texts in German are energetically written, but one remembers how cantankerous and idiosyncratic he was.  The Kraus translated into English doesn’t work and probably the works are untranslatable.  The Franzen in English is cringe-worthy.  The Michael Hofmann review in TNYRB is one of the best book reviews I have read, ever, gated here.

Arrived in my pile are:

5. Brigitte Granville, Remembering Inflation, and

6. Dwight H. Perkins, East Asian Development: Foundations and Strategies.

Sunday assorted links

1. “We find that ridesharing services resulted in a two percent decline in the overall demand for new cars, and that the impact varied by product segment.  The entry-level compact segment was affected the most, with sales declining by almost eight percent…” (see p.53)

2. Eleven (wrong) theses on civility.

3. “All employees (not just entry level employees) should strive to have at least 70% of their time doing things that are really difficult.”  From Auren Hofmann.  While the number seems a little high to me, the point is an important one nonetheless.

4. Michiko Kakutani By the Book (NYT).

5. Was Houllebecq right about sex?

6. Singlish under siege?

The Amazon order test as an algorithm for evaluating books

If you read a book, how many other related or similar books does it make you order?  (Of wish to order, if you are budget constrained.)  If the number is at least three or four, the book you read is almost certainly very interesting and worthwhile, if not always accurate.

Andrew Roberts’s biography of Napoleon made me want to read an additional biography of Napoleon, because it made his life to me more interesting.  It made Napoleon’s period more interesting too.  I might read a book on cavalry tactics as well, a topic I have never read on before.

Some books pretend to be the final word on a topic, but it is unlikely they succeed.  If you don’t end your read with some additional book orders, maybe you need to ask yourself what exactly went wrong.

At times it is not a book order which is the appropriate follow-up.  Say you read a book on Sri Lanka and you respond by going to Sri Lanka, well that counts too.  Or a biography of Beethoven may lead you to more of his music, rather than to another book on his life.

If I apply the Amazon order test, the best book for me this last year was Michael Hoffman’s Where Have You Been?: Selected Essays.

Hofmann’s book wins additional points for chain effects, namely the books I ordered, as a result of reading Hofmann, in turn made me want to order further books.  But chain effects are tricky.  Following my read of Andrew Roberts, and then a follow-up Napoleon biography, will I read yet another life of Napoleon?  That may depend on how good the follow-up is, and Roberts should not be held liable for that.  Or should he?  What should you think of a book which leads you to so-so follow-ups rather than to excellent follow-ups?  A blog post which does the same?

What percentage of the value of a book is derived from the quality of the follow-ups it induces?  Under plausible rates of discounting, for serial readers this could easily by eighty or ninety percent or more.  (Could it be that actual book reviews are not consequentialist? Horrors.)  How about a book review outlet which refuses to consider the books under consideration, but rather considers and evaluates what they will induce you to read next?

I would subscribe.

Assorted links