Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Book Reviews, June-December 2017

(This post is a continuation of my yearly book list. The first half of the year's books were covered previously.)

My reading predictably slowed down as life sped up this year, which has literally been a year of fire and flood. I will think of 2017 as a challenge until it is safely in the rear view mirror, and then I will hopefully think of it no more. 

In the margins, on the commutes, in the 5 minutes before I fall asleep in the wee hours of the morning, I managed to cram a couple more books in this latter half of the year. 32 books total for the year, though I have read fairly large sections of about 7 more. I hope to put those to rest fairly early in the new year and start clearing some backlog from my stack of books. It's become large enough to exert a non-negligible gravity and has shown signs of developing rudimentary ecological systems, so I really should get on that...

The Best We Could Do - Thi Bui
I don't often include graphic novels in this list, but this was a really moving work on the quintessential American experience of immigration and building a new sense of place. The story of a Vietnamese immigrant family struggling to bridge history and culture was especially meaningful in a year so marred by xenophobia and an ugly darkness rising in this country. I don't think I place it in the same league as Maus or Persepolis, partly because I don't think the art was as integral to the storytelling (it would have been equally compelling as a novel), but definitely worth reading. 

World's Fair - E.L. Doctorow

I had previously enjoyed City of God and Welcome to Hard Times so I thought I'd read a few more of Doctorow's books this year. World's Fair recreates the sense of place of the Depression-era Bronx, through the eyes of a young boy. Some of the text is masterful, some plodding. It doesn't have much that differentiates it from similar NYC in the Depression works, and never really gels a sense of place and time and atmosphere like Chabon's Kavalier and Clay. I read one (mostly positive) review that said the author seemed to be having trouble differentiating between the voices of memoir and novel, which felt accurate. 

Loon Lake - E.L. Doctorow

As compared to Fair, Loon Lake was a bit more memorable. Another Depression-era tale, the story of a boy drifter, young girl, and somewhat two-dimensional millionaire industrialist at an isolated cabin in the Adirondacks. Even though this was described as "an experimental novel" in style, I thought the story felt very traditional, with hints of Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye, etc. The archetypes here feel well trodden, even though Doctorow's writing occasionally elevates the reading. The novel does present a very strong sense of place, even for a story that feels like a bit of a retread. While I enjoyed the story, sometimes it felt like it was in spite of Doctorow just trying to hard to shove a very traditional story into a somewhat pretentious set of forms. City of God took up some of the same "experiemental" banners, but with a story more suited to it, and a deftness greater than Lake.

Birds of Jamaica - Ann Haynes-Sutton

While this was mostly a field guide, bought in preparation for a anniversary trip to Jamaica, it was written from a much more intimate scale and thoughtful approach than many of the larger field guides for bigger areas. 

Billy Bathgate - E.L. Doctorow

I think part of my hit and miss experience with Doctorow thus far has been due to reading more of his minor works than his celebrated hits. Bathgate  is a more widely read Doctorow novel, and it's fairly easy to see why. The ground covered in this gangster novel is not entirely new, but Doctorow handles it deftly. The story revolves around the young eponymous narrator who through somewhat hackneyed pluck secures himself a place in Dutch Schultz's retinue during the gangster heyday of the 30s. The story swirls through typical gangster elements...rivalries, molls, assasinations, etc. but Doctorow manages to blow up some of the typical elements, and his characters feel well formed. The dialogue between Billy and Schultz's consiglieri Berman forms the beating core of the book. 

An American War - Omar El Akkad

I (and apparently so many others) love post-apocalyptic tales. Whether it's zombies or plague or undefined global collapse, it seems like there's some visceral thrill to pondering "what if it all just fell away and we started over?". Especially in 2017, I think we can all empathize with the underlying infatuation with contemplating a restart...a global do-over. This appeal has been tempered for me in recent years by the flood of (mostly YA) post-apocalyptic fiction, much of it derivative refuse. Even lauded, "literary" works like Whitehead's Zone One haven't done much for me (Mandel's Station 11, notwithstanding). An American War was the standout I'd been looking for. While it is not the most literary offering (it's not in the same league as McCarthy's The Road), it is exponentially better quality prose than most of this genre. The book recasts contemporary ideas of identity, radicalization, sides-versus-principles, and the divide between the personal and national experience in the form of a second civil war brought on in no small part by resource scarcity and climate change. The "protagonist" (the novel declines to lionize anyone, even while it humanizes its sometimes monstrous characters) is southern, already challenging our traditional god/bad dichotomy, and the novel follows the course of national upheaval and eventual terrorist cataclysm at a very personal, sometimes claustrophobic level. It avoids easy categories, and forces you to deal with its characters as individuals, to experience paths toward radicalization and collaboration an a fundamentally organic way.  

High Mountains of Portugal - Yann Martel

My expectations for this book were really off base, so it's hard to come back around to an objective look at it. The novel is a series of interrelated stories of widowers set in Portugal. I had expected a somewhat whimsical, magical-realism type novel similar to Life of Pi. Even a third into the book, that's mostly what was going on, like the novelization of a Wes Anderson film, with a backwards walking narrator driving an automobile through superstitious peasant towns on a nigh-quixotic quest. Imagine Wes Anderson directing 100 Years of Solitude, and you're about where this ended up. Then it got really dark. Then it got really weird. In the end it was a satisfying, if less accessible, work than Pi, that meditates on our reactions to loss (in a way that, if you'll permit me me to pretentiously reference another author yet again, reminded me a lot of Murakami) The eventual reveals and connections are subtle and vast, and the writing (even at its most Martel-ish) is enjoyable.   

Mr. Splitfoot - Samantha Hunt

Splitfoot is an interwoven tale across two generations that is hard to begin to describe. It follows two women on simultaneous (from the prose standpoint) and divergent (from chornological standpoint) journeys to a similar location. In one an orphan and faux, the other a mute and her pregnant niece go's hard to really say anything about the book without being a spoiler. The book's revelations match pace with the women on their separate journies, and the connections start to reveal toward the end, when you suddenly see both stories in a completely different light. I heard it described as a "fever dream" and that's pretty apt. 

Bones of Paradise - Jonis Agee

There are times when you doubt an author based on a previous work, and then you give them one more chance and you really fall in love with a book. This is not one of those occasions. Bones of Paradise was a clunky, new-western novel about a ranching family embroiled in a murder mystery that stirs up generational...oh my God, I can't even bring myself to finish typing that it was so formulaic. . Nominally literature, the writing was about on par with a Zane Gray/Louis L'amour western-of-the-week (and that's not an insult to those authors, just reflecting that this felt like one of those more than a denser work). However, while Grey/L'amour at least give you a straight-ahead satisfying cowboy story. The sad thing is that the book had the trappings of a good story. In the hands of Annie Proulx or Cormac McCarthy this thing would have been dynamite. I read The Weight of Dreams several years ago and pretty much felt the same way, so I probably won't be reading anymore Agee. There were a few notable characters that really felt flushed out, but the way Agee clumsily knocked them about in 2 dimensional settings was cringe-worthy. 

21- Patrick O'Brian

I loved the 20 completed Aubrey-Maturin novels by Patrick O'Brian (sailing ships in the Napoleonic War - the movie Master and Commander was based on his novels). Unfortunately he died before completing his 21st. In the time honored tradition of making a buck on the deceased, they cobbled together some notes and the first chapter or two of an unedited work and called it 21 - the unfinished something or other who cares because it shoul dnot have been. That's probably not very charitable of me, the fan outcry for more of his work is pretty strong, and even knowing it was a snippet probably left alone, I still read it. But there's really nothing of value here. Better to turn the last page of Blue at the Mizzen, and let Jack Aubrey sail off under a fine press of canvas to an unknowable, but assumedly grand, destiny.  

The Ancient Minstrel - Jim Harrison

Jim Harrison's novels (and mostly novellas) are a mix of austere, epic writing like Legends of the Fall and The River Swimmer and more crass (but well written) banality of the Upper Peninsula like the retired detective stories of The Great Leader. The Ancient Minstrel was a mix of the two, with a beautiful story of a lone woman carving a life for herself sandwiched between a weirdly rambling fictitious biography of a writer and a really uncomfortable (though satisfyingly ended) continuation of a character from some of his previous Upper Peninsula novels. Even though this collection is somewhat lacking in general, and especially in terms of connection as a single work, his writing is still entertaining and poetic.  If you hadn't read Harrison before I would not start here. 

Brown Dog - Jim Harrison

Brown Dog was a much more satisfying collection of stories about a single character. Set in the UP like many of his stories, it follows a period in the life of a semi-educated man of mixed white and Native American ancestry. The weighty sense of place and unique UP culture meshes well with the portrayal of poverty and characters of the stories. The iterative set of tales feels almost like a ring cycle of stories, different seasons in the man's life and relationships. It delves into Harrison's usual fascination with the base human instincts and ultimately comic fallibility, but in a less over the top way than Great Leader. The story takes Brown Dog through subsistence level but carefree existence to greater connections and responsibilities. As usual, Harrison doesn't pull punches in laying humanity bare to its uglier, sillier aspects, but using Brown Dog as a lens his focus is less on his character's shortcomings, but on commenting on the discrepancy between how we view those, and how he views ours, in terms of society as a whole. The audiobook to this was exceptionally well read. 

All the Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr

I was happy to end the year on this novel of the converging lives of a young, blind French girl and a young German soldier in World War II. While that premise may sound like it's been done to death, the intricacy and detail of their stories makes for captivating writing. A blind girl grows up in the confines of the museum for which her father works, in the midst of a mutli-layered images of puzzles and lockworks, while a German orphan obsessed with mathematics is channeled into the German state and war machine. Eventually their stories converge, compress, and explode outward. The layers and precision of writing here were happy surprises for me; I had only picked up the book because it was available at the library and vaguely remembered it winning some award (Pulitzer, among others). I'm glad I did, and will now have to explore some of Doerr's other works. 

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Book reviews, January-June 2017

I debated on whether to make this post. This blog was something I enjoyed for several years. I still love the idea of it. I just have little time for it anymore. I still find myself thinking "hey, I should blog that", but mostly just end up posting it to Facebook (O tempora, o mores). These book lists seem to be the last gasp of what feels increasingly like a private game with the universe. 

This time I'll keep it simple. Here, in no particular order, are the books I read these last 6 months. I loved a few, loathed others (your mileage may vary).

The Drunken Botanist- Amy Stewart
Stewart's exploration of the botannical underpinnings of various alcoholic mixers and elixirs is excellent applied science geekery, at least in concept. Stewart offers a sometimes-insightful look at the connections between the science, history, and alchemy of cocktail ingredients without getting too deep in the weeds in any sphere. Although the descriptions seem to wane in exuberance as the book wears on (and wear on it does...), it's still a worthwhile read. I only wish she’s spent more time on the actual botany.

Wolf Hall - Hillary Mantel
The writing in this work of Tudor-era historical fiction seems like it's better than it needed to be. I don't usually love this genre, but the literature-grade dialogue and interplay between Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell is handled deftly and with great deference to its historical superstructure. I admit, I got this on audiobook because I desperately needed something for a long ride, and it was the only thing I could find in a five-minute search of my library's website. That being said, I ended up enjoying it far more than I thought I would.

The Old Ace in the Hole - Annie Proulx
Proulx continues to prove herself a master of place and character. This novel of a wayward son scouting pig farm locations and his interactions with small town characters is less epic in scope and timeline than many of her works. It feels to some degree like an elongated story from one of her Wyoming stories collections. It's a tribute to her writing that a novel in which nothing really much happens, set in a place I don't really care about, was so engaging. It was especially poignant as an illustration of the mindset and psychic landscape of midwest rural America, given current political atmospheres.

Dead Wake - Eric Larson
I keep hoping that Larson will produce another book as entertaining as Devil in the White City, but either his style or the subjects he selects invariably fall short. Dead Wake delves into the time and events surrounding the sinking of the Lusitania, a catalyst for the leadup to American involvement in WWI. For such a turbulent era, and such a momentous event, Larson's book feels more like a shallow summary. Larson does an adequate job of giving a sense of both the zeitgeist through minor characters and details, especially in terms of the German Uboats, but it never feels like he delves deep enough into anything to really provide its flavor. It was readable, but a bit bland given the incredible depth of story and drama the real event surrounded.

Absalom, Absalom - William Faulkner
With the exception of As I Lay Dying, Faulkner's work all blend and bleeds at the edges to me. This is, however, not a bad thing, and takes nothing from his work. I just have a hard time commenting on one work without connecting it to everything else. Absalom's allegory of the decay and dissolution of the antebellum south through a near-mythological southern family line is every bit as masterful as The Sound and the Fury (with which it shares a protagonist). The novel manages to encapsulate Faulkner's love/hate relationship with the south without being too on-the-nose in its symbolism. The subtle use of unreliable narrators and stories told from multiple viewpoints, unraveling as the novel goes on, is a nice counterpoint to the near-apocalyptic imagery throughout. I would go so far as to argue that this is a better book for high school English classes than Sound.

A Model World (and Other Stories)– Michael Chabon
Even in this earlier work, Chabon’s flair for dense, kinetic writing is present. None of these short pieces really stands out as a game-changing story in and of itself, but they offer a sampling of things to come. The latter section of coming of age stories cuts to the bone of family dynamics and disruption.  I had to go back and read a synopsis to remember the narratives, but there were several images and sentences that stuck with me. It felt like a literary sketch book rather than solid stories, but one filled with such captivating work that it was nonetheless a satisfying read.

Choke - Pahluniak
The best thing I can say about this novel of sexual addiction and subculture is that it was the least disappointing of the Pahluniak novels I read this year. I wasn’t particularly impressed by the writing, the story, or the shock value. There is some deft satire on selling image to the gullible, some of Pahluniak’s dark humor shines through in places, and there are some poignant themes of rebuilding. Overall it feels like there’s a good story that just didn’t come into focus. 

Blue at the Mizzen – Patrick O’Brian
Last year I read almost all (19!) of O’Brian’s acclaimed Aubrey/Maturin cycle of novels. Blue at the Mizzen is the last, other than an unfinished 21st novel, of these stories of 1800’s naval life and spy intrigue. The book is lighter on action, which was a little disappointing (as a big knock-down finale would have served the series well). Given that the author didn’t intend this to be the final novel, or to die before continuing the series, this is fairly excusable. Jack Aubrey finally gets his admiralship, Steven Maturin ties of up some loose ends of a multi-novel story arc of South American revolution, and the lives of the characters generally are left on an uplifting note. It continued to be a blend of Jane Austin-esque romance, Joseph Conrad-esque spy intrigue, and straight-up naval battles.

It Can’t Happen Here – Sinclair Lewis
Yes, I read this along with half the other horrified people in the country this year. Lewis’ story of the growth and eventual downfall of an American fascist government is chilling in the minutia, but fairly heavy-handed in the broader narrative. If we weren’t so busy dealing with a real Buzz Windrip of our own, this book may have been more enjoyable. As it is, it felt more like a redundant reminder than a forewarning. At some point Lewis abandons all subtly and realism in his depiction of the regime’s excesses, which takes away from the underlying strength of the message and devolves into something less relatable and more comical. Real evil is in the conglomeration of minor betrayals.

The Great Leader – Jim Harrison
Harrison is an immensely talented author, but in a very bifurcated way. His more austere, epic works (Legends of the Fall, The River Swimmer, etc) seem almost the work of a different writer than his grittier, excess-of-human-nature stories. The Great Leader is the story of a down-and-out, past his prime detective struggling with banal minutia of divorce, retirement, and drinking/other vices. He cannot let a case go after retirement (the ur-motif of countless police thrillers), and the novel recounts his dogged but wayward pursuit of a cult leader. Everyone in the novel is a collection of human failures, colliding unavoidably in a morass of collected human failure. It’s a tribute to Harrison that what could have been a formulaic thriller instead is elevated by his understated literary prowess. Foremost is his skill at undressing the pretense and romanticism of human experience to lay bare our base natures in a way that creates fully fleshed, imminently fallible characters.

Gilead – Marilynne Robinson
I really wanted to like Gilead’s exploration of the clash between harsh realities of segregation, failure, and family ties with quiet theological reflection of a small town minister. But the telling of the stories through the minister’s staid and reserved tone is like making a copy of a vibrant painting with muted watercolors. Robinson’s world is full of intriguing characters, from a radical abolitionist preacher to ne’er do well prodigal sons, but the filtering of their stories through the human equivalent of Nyquil makes their realities unnecessarily gentle. I’m sure there are some deeper reflections on gentleness and submission in faith in the face of the horrors of the world, but the latter never feels fully fleshed, and the former dominates the conversation.

Damned/Doomed – Chuck Pahluniak
The first two books of this unfinished trilogy about the adventures of a deceased teenage girl in a capricious hellscape afterlife left me completely unconcerned as to whether there will ever be a concluding chapter. Pahluniak abandons all subtlty and craft and just piles on poorly written excess after excess. Even his usual dark humor and satire is completely fumbling and unformed. The first novel was passable, but disappointing. The retconning second novel was so poorly executed it managed to retroactively damage the first.  Even the cover art on Doomed seems like they got an intern to sketch something in pencil right before publication.  

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
Ok, so yes, this was another “book to accompany the devolution of the American Democracy” read. That being said, Atwood’s story surprised me with its subtlty and the chilling effect of its small touches. This is not the over-the-top insanity of Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, it’s a novel of claustrophobic horrors and intimate betrayals, slowly revealed. Atwood’s account of a post-apocalyptic future in which fertile women are enslaved to the wealthy as brood mares is equally a commentary on fascism as it is a feminist exploration of control. It could have done either and be satisfying, and could have simply been a sci fi pulp piece and been a good enough premise to be worthwhile. Its strength is not in having a wild premise, but in crafting a world very like our own, just shifted in jarring ways that create a dissonance rather than a shock. What really drew me in was not just the wealth of undertones the story hints at, but Atwood’s skill at revealing the horrors and injustice with a surgeon’s scalpel rather than a blunt mallet. I’ve only ever read her “The Year of the Flood”, which was not entirely enjoyable,  so I had no expectations for Handmaid. I enjoyed the story, but also her style on this novel. As with other works I really liked this year, it felt like it took a moderate premise and elevated it to literature-grade storytelling. Even if the storyline hadn’t been so poignant to the current war on women’s health, this is a strong piece on its own merits.

Norse Mythology – Neil Gaiman
As blasphemy as this may be to my general sensibilities about the lingering importance of reading actual books in a digital world, part of me has the sneaking suspicion that the absolute best way to experience Gaiman’s work is through an audiobook in which he is the narrator. Gaiman’s writing is good, at times great, but his greatest strength is as a teller of stories. He has a voice and storytelling ability that seem to transcend whatever literary limitations his writing may have.  I don’t even think of him as an author so much as a storyteller who works a lot in novel form. Norse Mythology is the sum and substance of that fundamental character. Norse mythos in general derive from an oral tradition of character-focused stories. It’s not surprising that they have been a great influence to Gaiman (See: American Gods, etc.), but that his style would be such a great match for retelling these myths. Gaiman doesn’t completely reinterpret the classical Eddas as much as he adds flavor, fleshes out characters, and weaves connections. It doesn’t end up being my favorite of his works, but it was a very enjoyable listen. Like all good storytellers, Gaiman takes a universally shared set of stories, and then tells them through his own voice and imagination.

South of the Border, West of the Sun - Murakami
My appreciation of Murakami continues to grow the more of his works I read (at some point I’ll get around to the long-delayed 1Q84). I still feel like I’m missing some of the subtext and tone that doesn’t transcend the strong Japanese themes of his characters’ worlds. But his ability to meld messy, honest human emotion and relationships with hints of Ishiguro-esque unreliable narration and magical realism make his reads challenging and rewarding. South is another story of star crossed love, but serves mostly as a reflection on our ties to our pasts, and the tangible affects them have on us. The protagonist’s vacillation between the reality of his family and business and the (maybe) ghost of a former love, and the past she represents, is handled exceptionally well. Some authors are masters of subtle cuts, some of devastating reveals. Murakami somehow manages to combine both in an organic, human way. I’m sure there are deeper reflections on post-war Japanese society and transition here that I’m missing, but the story is satisfying enough to keep me from being too concerned.

The Revenant – Michael Punke
Oddly, Punke’s period revenge thriller is unintentionally the third fur trappers/voyageurs related novel I’ve been reading this year (still trying to clear some space to properly enjoy Proulx’s Barkskins). The writing is short of literary, but the story of a fur trapper fighting for survival and revenge after being left for dead in the wake of a grizzly mauling is a page turner. Punke’s writing is just sort of…there, but decent enough not to distract from the pace and telling of the story. I found out afterwards that the story is based to some extent on an actual historical person, which reduced Punke a bit in my estimation, but simultaneously increased my interest in the story. I have not yet seen the movie.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan
Flanagan is a new author for me, and I’m excited to have become acquainted with his works. Narrow Road is the story of an Australian’s experience as a POW in WWII Japan, and the impact of his notoriety later in life, but includes so many other times and perspectives that it’s hard to really summarize it well. While the WWII POW motif has been over-, and poorly, done as of late in a series of fairly schmaltzy-but-popular works (looking at you, Unbroken), Narrow Road’s focus is far broader and more literary (I know I keep using “literary” as if it was some sort of litmus test of measurable value. I recognize it’s just a subjective thing. When I use it, what I’m trying to get at is a work that focuses as strongly on the crafting of the language and style as it does on the story.) Flanagan’s army surgeon moves through beautiful set pieces in a story that reflects on the infirmity of character, and the discrepancies between the images the world assigns us and our internal realities. It reminded me a lot, without being at all derivative, of Ondaatje’s The English Patient as being a strong character study walking through robustly rendered landscapes of war.

Afterword - Abandoned Books
I try not to abandon books, but as I have gotten older, and the endless afternoons of youth have dwindled to stolen reading moments at night, etc, I have less patience for books I don’t enjoy. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy came highly recommended, but I couldn’t get through it. It felt like a poorly executed memoir that wasn’t particularly relevant to the broader social forces it was touted as “explaining”. I also decided to finally sit down and read a collection of Arthurian Romance, but just couldn’t get through it. I appreciate the style and form and its historical significance, but in the end it was mostly knights getting into random fights with other knights for unapparent reasons and lengthy hyperbole on the knightly character of knightly characters. 

Friday, June 23, 2017

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

My Year in Books, Part 2

It's somewhat telling that the last blog post I made was for the first half of the year's reading.  I don't know if it's the gradual decline of blogs in the face of other social media, my increased parental holdings, or just the dumpster fire that is 2016, but this blog has been pretty neglected. I think it's time to re-imagine what I want to do with it.

Before we get that far, though, I have a second half-year of books to attend to. As usual, a tip of the hat to the good folks over at Are There Any More Cookies and A Fiercer Delight and A Fiercer Discontent, from whose book review motif  I continuously steal mercilessly draw inspiration. 

I read/listened to a personally-large number of books this latter part of the year (31, for a yearly total of 48, or 4 a month). Sadly, I mostly engaged in a steadfast avoidance of  the Serious Literature that has piled up on my nightstand (Sorry Proulx, Faulkner, and Murakami...I'll get to you yet...) and opted for lighter fare. I burned out on news during my commute pretty early in the election cycle, so my audiobook quotient is much higher than usual. I started reading a dozen more books, but either ran out of time or wasn't in the right place to finish them.

To aid in a brief skim of this post (and in preparation for the upcoming TL;DR era of a Trump presidency) I have added one line summary titles for each book that get to its essence. 


"Jesus Christ: Super Stark."

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth – Reza Aslan
Azlan is at best a pop historian. This is not a universally accepted portrayal. There are historical inaccuracies in this book about historical inaccuracies about our perception of Jesus. I recognize all these things (and I also recognize that at least some of the criticism of Aslan's scholarship is from people whose scholarship errs in the other direction). All that being said, I found this book about separating the mythological Jesus from the historical Jesus an interesting perspective. Aslan has a decent narrative, even with his tendency to give too much credence to suggestions about the gaps in the historical record. I can take or leave a lot of the details, but what was most enlightening for me was the context the book provides. Even while critics quibble over the minutae, Zealot does a competent job of widening the lens on the Jesus story. Getting a better flavor of the political and social context of the time puts the main Jesus narrative (whether one subscribes to it or not) in a different light. What ultimately made this particular messiah candidate (there was more competition than I realized) the one that history remembers is a matter of debate, but one worth talking about. I won't say I really enjoyed it, but it was worth the read. It's a stark portrayal, sometimes errant, but an informative look at the time and place if not the man. 


"Amy Poehler being intermittently funny about Amy Poehler"

Yes Please – Amy Poehler
This was a last minute "I need an audiobook for a 3 hour car ride" selection. Poehler mixes her personal story (She did a lot of improv before SNL/Parks and Rec. There, I just saved you several hours) with some fragmented bits of philosophy. There are some funny bits, but a lot of it just feels like small talk, disjointed and noncommittal. To its credit, there's no way one can hope that a book by a comedic actor will be as good as the writing for their character. But if I'm being honest, I was hoping this would be more "Leslie Knope" and less "obscure early SNL skit character". It felt more like a victory lap than a cohesive book.


"Like a 'Sexy Buccaneer' Halloween costume; it's all about pirate booty"

Treasure Island – Robert Louis Stevenson
I never read Treasure Island as a kid. So I read it. There's not a lot of nuance here, it's just a straight-ahead boy's adventure story. It was interesting to see the birth of the literary pirate tradition. There are some books written for children which transcend their genre and remain relevant throughout the ages. This is probably not one of them. 


"Not even the Battle of El Alamein was this dry and British..."

H is for Hawk – Helen MacDonald
Hawk revolves in an intensely close orbit around a woman's trials and tribulations in raising a Gyrfalcon for falconry after a recent death in the family. The real heart of the book, though, is an equally brutal and subtle take on loss and recovery. It's unapologetically English, understated and fussy at times, but it cuts to the bone unexpectedly in its portrayal of the claustrophobic, fractious obsession of putting order to dissaray, and losing one's self in a pursuit as a coping mechanism. Under the rules and order and methodology of the character's falconry lurks the barely contained, dark, messy cacophany of the human heart. MacDonald brings out that interplay masterfully.  


"Aziz Ansari, MSW"

Modern Romance – Aziz Ansari
Ansari makes a surpringly earnest, honest, and emotionally relevant look at romance in the new digital era. There's humor, but I'm surprised how much of this book is real, social science-lite, inquiry and evaluation. This is not intended primarily as a comedic work, but its infused with a humor that's far more emotionally honest than Poehler's improv shtick. I love that this really feels like a sincere effort by Ansari to wrap his arms around a topic. If you liked "Master of None", which you should, you'll dig this book. If anything, I feel like it had room to grow. While none of the insights are truly earth-shattering, they do have a sense of human realness that's absent in more scholarly works.


"Horror (of real life) stories"

Werewolves in their Youth – Michael Chabon
Chabon is unquestionably a master of character, dialogue, and sense of place. While I enjoyed this collection of short stories about dissolution of relationships and misanthropy, there were few that were ultimately memorable. There were some passages that were outstanding, and what felt like the kernels of great stories, all tied together with his amazing style, but it didn't really gel together as something I'll take much away from other than the enjoyment of his style. I still prefer the freedom to stretch his story-telling legs that longer works afford him (Pittsburgh, notwithstanding).


"Wait, Alexander Hamilton's not Latino?".

1776 – David McCullough
I admit it, I read this mostly because Chernow's Hamilton wasn't available at the library. As much as 1776 is often held up as the exemplary popular work on the early Revolution, it really came off as more of a primer than a comprehensive work. It's well written and readable, and it's a decent balance of an honest look at the revolution in 1776 that doesn't devolve into revisionism. It feels a little incomplete, like a tasting of a larger work. In fairness, the explosion of Revolutionary War pop history franchises (Turn, Hamilton, etc) means 1776 has to cut through more noise than it once did. 


"Cannons! Spies! Dialogue! Romance! More Dialogue! More Cannons!"

The Aubrey/Maturin Novels – Patrick O'Brian
Remember that time Russel Crowe made that movie about sailing ships, and it was halfway decent even though it has a ridiculously long name? Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World  was based on a beloved series of novels about British naval ships in the Napoleonic wars. The 20+ novels can be thought of as one 5000 page epic (or even romans-flueve) charting the evolving friendship and adventures of a naval captain (Aubrey) and his surgeon/intelligence officer (Maturin). I expected these to just be light historical fare, but they were engaging and literary in their own right. It's like Jane Austen and Joseph Conrad had a baby and then gave it some cannons.

O'Brian focuses far more on dialogue and intrigue than sea battles, but the sea battles alone are worth the price of admission. I was just thinking recently that I tend to enjoy when authors don't spend a lot of time on exposition...not explaining every technology and acronym and plot device, just turning on the viewer to their world and letting us pick things up in context. O'Brian does that masterfully, giving readers no quarter in use of naval terminology and period politics, but in a way that ends up being incredibly satisfying. You don't need to know that a fully-rigged ship has at least a square-rigged fore, main, and mizzen mast to enjoy the series. The pacing of both the action and quiet moments is consistently well-timed.

I ended up reading/listening to 19 of the 21 novels in the series over the course of the last 6 months. The inestimable Robert Hardy's stellar narration on the audiobooks added a considerable amount to my enjoyment. I'm honestly sad that there won't be any more of these books (O'Brian died mid-book). When I found out I'm pretty sure I remember clenching my fists at the havens and yelling "NOOO WHY COULDN'T YOU HAVE TAKEN GEORGE RR MARTIN INSTEAD???".


"Cowboy D&D"

The Gunslinger – Steven King
Confession: I don't read a lot of Steven King. Don't get me wrong, he has a wonderfully dark imagination. I just don't like his writing much, and I think he's been phoning it in for years now. And I say this as someone who will never, ever, have a fraction of his ability. I admire his work, I just don't enjoy it much. I am probably one of the few who will defend Kubrick for making a masterpiece out of The Shining, as opposed to the great-idea-but-clumsy-execution of King's original novel. In that vein, I never gave King's magnum opus Dark Tower series about a cowboy flavored post-apocalyptic fantasy world much thought when it was originally being published. However, I ran across the graphic novel adaptation of his work with art by Jae Lee and others. I was immediately hooked on the master-class in world building that King teaches through this creation. I finally picked up a copy of the first novel, The Gunslinger,  and was pleasantly surprised. It's a little hokey in places, but aligns well with my preference toward not giving your reader too much to go on. King drops you into a fully-realized world and gradually flashbacks you pieces of context. I started on the 2nd and 3rd book, and wasn't as impressed, but will probably getting around to reading the whole series at some point. The writing is better than similar  series of long books with lots of characters (lookin' at you, George RR Martin). I guess I'll have to re-evaluate my unearned disdain for King.


"Post-apocalyptic hippies and the women who love them"

Year of the Flood – Margret Atwood
So, it's hard to start a trilogy on book 2 (I mistakenly thought this book was the first in its series). Year mostly tells post-apocalyptic survival stories from several characters' viewpoints, who connect through a group of end time hippy cultists. I have not read anything by Atwood before, and to be honest, wasn't overly impressed by Flood. The writing is ok, but not compelling in and of itself (my wife assures me the first and third books of this  series are better.) The story seems like it touches on some interesting elements, and is fairly brutal with its main characters and adroit in its prodding at cult mentality, but it feels like a side narrative to a more interesting story. I haven't decided if I'll read the whole series. It didn't help that I listened to this on audiobook, and they kept cutting to some weird folk rock songs every other chapter. 


"Neil Gaiman reading Neil Gaiman stories. Shut up and take my money."

Smoke and Mirrors – Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman is an incomparable story-teller. That doesn't mean he has the best writing style (it's still usually pretty good), or that he achieves masterworks of literature for the ages, but he excels at weaving the primordial fabric of stories from pure imagination. This collection of short stories drifts from horror to whimsy to humor (the lighter side of the Cthulhu mythos) and even once into some odd erotic bits, but it all feels very complete.  More importantly, the collection works as a collection. Hearing it in his own voice on the audiobook was frosting on the cake ( the good kind of frosting, not the sort that leaves fluorescent blue all over your tongue and tastes like over-sweet chemicals.)

"Better than the movie. Also, see above re: shutting up and taking my money."

Stardust – Neil Gaiman
Another Gaiman audiobook for a book I've never read, even though I saw the (admittedly quite well adapted) movie. Having Gaiman as the reader adds an inordinate amount to the feel and pacing of the book. It falls somewhere between the great story but so-so writing of American Gods, and the achievement of writing brilliance and pretty good story of The Ocean at the End of the Lane. As with all Gaiman's books, the introduction is actually worth reading and gives a lot of context for this grown-up fairy tale.  


"David Sedaris back when he was funny. ish."

Holidays on Ice – David Sedaris
I don't like David Sedaris as much as I'm supposed to like him. There, I've said it. At his best, he has a bitter and emotionally honest humor. At his worst, the darkness greatly overbalances the humor. On the average, he feels a lot like a second class New Yorker cartoon a lot of the time. This late 90's collection of holiday pieces has some of his best/most well known (Santaland Diaries) and it's a nice counterpoint to the plastic-fantastic wave of Christmas schlock that's upon us. That being said, there is some remarkably dark stuff in here. I listened to this as an audiobook read by Sedaris...I'm still on the fence as to whether that improves or hinders his work. 


"They printed out the website."

Atlas Obscura – Foer, et al. 
Atlas Obscura is one of my favorite websites. It contains write-ups of odd places, natural phenomena, odd histories, etc. of the world. When they came out with a book, I was skeptical. It promised to be a curated selection of writings on the website, but it feels like they just grouped them by location and called it a day. The book lacks much of the accompanying pictures and media of the website. They attempt to duplicate the feature linking readers to similar entries by providing small summaries, but it ends up being a lot of redundancies and clumsiness. Unlike collections from other sites (Onion, for example), the book format just doesn't seem to work for Atlas Obscura. I'd rather just read it on the interactive, searchable, brilliant website. 

Monday, June 27, 2016

My Half-Year in Books (January-June 2016)

In my fine tradition of intermixed sloth and manic over-reading, I am mentally stumbling into the end of June and another half-year book review. Still trying to read more than the average American, but as usual, that's not a high bar. Since I'm fairly sure reading in general will be outlawed under President Trump, I am doing my best to get in as many books as I can. My last and best hope is that the good folks over at Are There Any More Cookies and A Fiercer Delight and A Fiercer Discontent survive the conflagration to come. I expect there will be a great need for the well-read to translate weightier works into Trumpish, like this:

In the meantime, here are a few books that you, depending on your political leanings, might also want to read/burn before the coming apocalypse/glorious ascent. 

Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami
Murakami’s dense, organic writing may not completely retain all of its nuance and cultural touchpoints in its translation to English, but it is so masterful it doesn’t matter. This novel is a wonderful example of Murakami’s skill at writing human emotional interplay in all its messy and un-romanticized glory. The story meanders through years of uncertain love and tragedy between several Japanese college students, but is consistently intimate and in the moment. It is not as dryly poetic as Ishiguro or Barnes, into whose general sphere of subject this work falls, but it trumps each in the realness of the characters and interactions.  

The Golden Compass – Phillip Pullman
I had never read this “humanist’s Narnia”, and had heard flagrantly flattering and excoriating accounts (often dependant on the reviewer’s personal faiths). The general premise of the story about alternate realities revolves around a fight to free a population from the hegemony of a big-c Church allegory. The symbolism is pretty in-your-face, and the main character is often less then sympathetic, but the steampunk-before-steampunk world building is fairly admirable, with sentient armor-building polar bear societies, animalistic totems, etc. I don’t really have a dog(ma) in this fight, so I was able to get past the sometimes heavy-handed critique of religion’s impact on the individual and enjoy what was a decently written children’s adventure story (much like Narnia).

The Big Seven – Jim Harrison
I’ve long been a fan of Harrison’s work, and this story is comfortably ensconced in the themes of some of his other novels. The story is a semi-sequel to a previous novel I haven’t read, but was fine as a stand-alone. It recounts a man reconstructing himself physically and figuratively from injury and divorce, trying to feel his way through new ways of interacting with his wife and daughter after divorce. And then Harrison brings in some Justified-style backwoods crime elements and ruminations on sin. It’s a chopped salad mix of elements, which makes Harrison’s simple but deft connections all the more impressive.

Trigger Warning – Neil Gaiman
Gaiman is one of the writers whose work I will always read, no questions asked. His writing meanders from pulpy to literary, and he’s had some works that just didn’t …work, but at the end of the day, he’s a master storyteller who dwells at the ragged edges of reality and mythology. This collection of short stories varies greatly between densely rich world building and fan fiction (no, really, he does a fan fic tribute to Dr. Who and Sherlock Holmes). His ability to build completely fleshed out worlds in small pieces makes even the less powerful pieces worth a read.

The Subtle Knife – Phillip Pullman
A continuation of the Golden Compass (His Dark Materials) work. Not much differentiation from the first.

The Amber Spyglass – Phillip Pullman
The final book in the trilogy (and yes, I feel literary guilt at reading a YA trilogy given the sheer volume and poor average quality of the works on the market today.) The ending is generally satisfying, though it loses steam a bit. In reviewing the book on its merits, I can confidently say “this is a book I read.” That’s about it.

The Magician's Land – Lev Grossman
Grossman’s wry and witty stew of Narnia/Potter satire and original story once again produces something far greater than the sum of its parts. The final novel in the trilogy (oh God, another trilogy) is satisfying and feels like a more confidant and richer work than its preceding novels. Having gotten past the homage/skewering of Narnia and Potter elements, the story finally realizes its full potential and Grossman’s focus becomes more focused, subtle, and original. I really liked the first installments in this series about a realistic version of the secret wizards/secret land archetype, in which the characters are not idealized and noble, but faulty and human. The final novel feels more like an extended denouement from the climax of the previous novel, even with its large set-piece battles. Getting into the winding down of world-building seems to have given Grossman some more room to flesh out his characters and dig into the hurt. Other world-builders could take a lesson here. Cough-George RR Martin-Cough.

After Dark – Haruki Murakami
This novel was an interesting counterpoint to Norwegian Wood, taking a darker, more abstract approach. The blurring of the lines between dream and reality is handled both subtly and with jarring impact. The story of Japanese students weaving through a night world of crime and semi-supernatural elements and down-to-earth urban blight sounds like bad sci-fi, but in reality is only the vehicle for Murakami’s literary exploration of connections between people, and society, and alienation thereof. It has a weird beauty to it.

Thunderstruck – Erik Larson
Larson is sometimes a less-then-able historical storyteller, especially when it comes to pacing and consistency. His historical works (Devil in the White City) usually do well (but not always, Garden of Beasts)  in providing a sense of a place and time beyond names and dates. Thunderstruck is almost a carbon-copy of the framework of Devil in the White City’s juxtaposition of a big historic event, with a small but revealing counter-story taking place at the same time. Unfortunately for this book, neither the large saga of Marconi’s struggle to perfect wireless communication, nor the minor story of a murder really captures the imagination like Devil did. The murder subplot feels tacked on, the Marconi portion lacks much to spark the imagination, and the very tenuous connection between the two is not unifying in defining a place and time.  

Outer Dark – Cormac McCarthy
This was the one novel of McCarthy’s I had never read, though I have no idea why. I write this with the admission that I find no hyperbole in calling McCarthy the greatest novelist of the latter half of the 20th century. His gift for beautiful sparseness and dialogue is unmatched. Most of his stories deal fairly firmly in the world of the real, even given the apocalyptic fringes of his magnum opus Blood Meridian. This story blurs the lines a bit more, hinting at a more metaphorical progression. The novel recounts the parallel wanderings of a brother and sister seeking each other and their missing child (highlight again one of McCarthy’s two primary themes of 1) Don’t go to Mexico, and 2) Appalachia is $&^%ed up.) through an allegorical dreamscape of characters and slipping sense of time’s passing. It’s an interesting departure for McCarthy, and it worked well. As usual, his terse, spartan exchanges drop worlds of meaning and backstory.

Welcome to Hard Times – E.L. Doctorow
Somehow, I’ve gotten this far in life without reading Doctorow. When someone recommended I give him a shot, I picked up the first thing available at the library, which was Hard Times. It reads as a fairly straight-ahead old-western tail of a town struggling to rebuild itself after an encounter with outlaws. In restrospect, I realize it is a microcosm commentary on human resilience and failing, but fails to really bring broader themes out well. It’s well written, though not astoundingly beautiful in style. The fact that it was made into a middling Western movie speaks to its accessibility, and its general place among his works. I do have to say it set my expectations for Doctorow fairly low, so the next book came as a bit of a shock to the system.

City of God – E.L. Doctorow
City of God (no relation to the movie about Brazilian gangs) is almost the exact opposite of Hard Times. This book about a falling man of god and NYC is exceedingly dense, varying between Chabon-esque dialogue and abstract contemplations of God, astronomy, and humanity. Doctorow is brutal with readers in terms of limiting exposition, and often deliberately leaving only the slightest clues as to which character is speaking at any given time. There’s at least two books/stories-within-a-book going on, none of which are explicity delineated from the main story. It’s a challenging read, but not pretentiously so. Doctorow crams a lot of contemplation into the story, but manages to lash it all together into something that feels fulfilling, even though it bogs down a bit in the middle.. Pro tip – don’t try to read in 15 minute sections before bed.

Hunger makes me a Modern Girl – Carrie Brownstein
I have literally no idea why I picked this book up, other than it was available in my digital lending library, and I like Carrie’s work on Portlandia. To my pop culture shame, I think partly I just really wanted to stop mentally confusing Sleater-Kinney with Shonen Knife, both bands I am tangentially aware of but have never suffered through an album with. It’s an interesting, but not especially well-written, account of  her meandering from the post-punk/Riot-Grrl scene in the west coast through semi-stardom to the present. Unfortunately, despite its attempts at self-deprecating wryness, it ends up being a little self-unaware. If I was ever interested in the riot grrl movement or the music history of the region, I am less so now. The depictions of the difference between rock stardom stereotypes and the reality of a not-quite-making-it band were probably the more interesting part of the book. Brownstein does speak volumes about disillusionment with movements (whether she intends to or not), but it doesn’t add up to a really fascinating memoir.

Mysteries of Pittsburgh – Michael Chabon
This is Chabon’s earliest work, completed as a student, and…it shows. I am an ardent fan of his later work, like Kavalier and Klay and I think he’s a master of dialogue and pacing. But this early work is thin. It shows a lot of promise of what is to come, but just doesn’t flesh its characters out in the same vivid and robust way his later works do. That being said, it’s still a better novel than many other first attempts I’ve read, and worth reading. The story generally revolves around themes of identify, in its boy-boy-girl-sometimes other girl-motorcycle-mafia love pentangle. The one thing seriously missing is the inclusion of the city itself as as much of a living breathing character as NYC is in Klay. It’s there, but it’s more of an in joke than a force.

Saga, Buffy Season 8/9/10 – Various
I lumped these two series together, partly in shame for even including them on the list. I don’ regularly read comics/graphic novels, but once in a while will dip my toe back in that pool if something has a really great story. I read through enough collected volumes of each to qualify as a book to me.
Saga was hyped up to me as one of those non-comic comics with Joss Whedon-style dialogue. I like Vaughn’s other graphic novels Y; The Last Man and Ex Machina, so I thought I’d give it a shot. I did not like Saga as much. As usual, the characters are compelling, but the story just has so many elements that were too silly to gloss over (a race of TV headed creatures) and distracted from the art of the dialogue.
Buffy the Vampire, Season 8 (and 9, and 10) is a comic-form continuance of the TV show. So right there, I was ready to pay the price of admission. To its credit, Season 8 starts out well drawn, with fantastic Buffy-style humor, and great storylines. Unfortunatley it descends pretty quickly into a morass of an ending. Thankfully, Season 9 and 10 redeem it. This is solid Buffy storytelling and dialogue, in some cases better than Season 7. Buffy fans who can convince themselves to read comic form should give it a shot.

Choose your Own autobiography – Neal Patrick Harris
NPH has always felt like someone I grew up with to some extent. We are close in age, I was the same geeky kid (no! Say it isn’t so!) I saw on the screen in Doogie Howser (minus the medical degree) at the same time. Until recently, NPH had pretty much dropped off the map until some Broadway work and Harold and Kumar gave him a Travolta-level resurgence. When I saw his autobio, and that it was done in classic “Choose your own adventure” format, I took a chance. The result is…interesting. The gimmicky format is enjoyable, but he never really commits to it. There’s a few token shoutouts to the old CYOO format, but it feels a little tacked on. The writing is ok, and occasionally witty, but feels very sanitized. Either NPH has had the most absurdly blessed life, or this is a very curated autobiography. Even in its self-deprecating style, it’s an exercise in self promotion. I think part of it is the Broadway coming some extent it feels like a Broadway number. Big, boisterous, a little sappy, but with a sense of playing a character. I never felt like he was willing to really dig into the hard times, or the other parts of life that make someone a fully rounded character. It feels like this is someone who has been playing a role his entire life, and making pitches, and wasn’t able to set it aside for a more personal and real account. Even his accounts of coming out are almost wholly positive and unrealistically, overwhelmingly saccharine.  We get it, NPH, you live an charmed existence. Unfortunately, scrubbed of its darker pieces, it's not terribly enthralling. 

Isaac's storm – Erik Larson
Another Larson historical work, Isaac focuses on the Galveston hurricane of 1900, the deadliest in America’s history. Larson does a great job in portraying the human folly and experience of the storm, and gets at the horror of it that a broader view misses. I give him credit for not weighing this book down with a tacked on substory…his accounting of the hurricane is directly told through a historical figure’s account rather than a counterplay with a minor event. It’s more cohesive than Thunderstruck. However, Larson misses an opportunity to tie the event more strongly to the time and place. It feels a little out of context. He spends a lot of time on the formation and bureaucracy of the Weather Service, but it’s not time well spent. It robs the book of ample time to dig into the event itself, and especially the aftermath. A good account of the storm, regardless.

Dead Wake – Erik Larson
Yet another Larson book (not intentionally…I just happened to have two I’d been meaning to read, when this came out). This time Larson is detailing the seminal moment for US involvement in WWI surrounding the sinking of the Lusitania. As usual, Larson has problems with consistency of detail. He spends only a few pages on the context (the buildup to the war, and the weave of alliances that brought it about), and an unfortunate amount of time on minor details of passenger backstories. However, that being said, this is a well balanced alternative to his usual, somewhat hokey, gimmick of counterpoint stories (which really only worked marginally well in Devil in the White City). It feels more like Isaac than Thunderstruck. This era is a bit of a historical black hole for a lot of Americans, with much more attention focused on WWII, so I enjoyed the read.

Up Next - Annie Proulx's new novel, Barkskins, and more from Ondaatje, McKewan, et al. 

1 - I also started a few books that were either shelved temporarily, or I just gave up on. The greatest disappointment was Ta-Nehisi Coates' "Between the World and Me." It had such a great premise, essentially of a father's missive to his son, saturated with exploration of race and identity in America, but it was fundamentally flawed. Even given Coates' occasionally powerful (but wildly inconsistent) writing style, the overall content of the book was shallow, and a bit intellectually disingenuous.  I know it was not intended to be social history, but a more personal account. That being said, it drifted too far in to the realm of ally-shaming and parroting the unfortunate tendency toward shallow, unnuanced complaint. It lacked any self-discipline in backing up its assertions, as if saying something inherently makes it true. From the very start, Coates builds a house on sand, shored up by pillars that just don't match the reality of modern society. One does not have to discount any continuing injustice to admit that there has been progress made since slavery, or that there is hope and value in continuing the fight. Coates' work could have balanced all of that with a more powerful focus on expressing the feelings of outrage and hopelessness, and tapping into bridging the gap to share that experience. Instead, he spent too much time in what I read on equating the emotion to the reality as polemic. This is the point at which critics are usually accused of being over-reactive, or being forced to confront things they don't want to confront..that the fault is theirs, and their privilege speaking, that they can't possibly have an actual point because of their gender/ethnicity. To be honest, in this case, I think the Emperor's new clothes really aren't resplendent, and it's not my fault for failing to make them so. I stopped midway to read critiques, positive and negative, and just didn't' find anything that gave me hope it would get any better. I can fully accept that, as a white male, I cannot hope to truly empathize with Coates' message. That being said, I'm also not willing to be ally-shamed into surrendering any critical thought I have on the value of the work and its message, which ultimately is overly simplistic and bleak. It's sad to see a  potent literary voice stray into the "more outragier-than-thou" trap of mistaking hyperbole and shock for substance. Race in America remains an incredibly important and potent subject, one that demands respect of its profound nature, if not seriousness, in those who tackle it. For me, Coates fails to either capture the intense personal experience or to accurately deal with the multifacted nature of the problem. Instead he dips her toes into a halfway realm that serves neither purpose well.  Ellison's Invisible Man, this is not.