Friday, January 11, 2013

My year in books

When I was young I devoured books. My mother told me I taught myself to read...that she found me reading a book one day, and that was that. I'm not sure if that's true or sentimental apocraphya, but a lot of my childhood found me either wandering our land, with my nose stuck in a book, or both simultaneosly. Sadly, adulthood demands its compromises with bellowing voice. I have a hard time setting aside blocks of time to read, and it seems so frustrating that reading almost becomes a chore to schedule. And at least for me, my imagination isn't as immersive as it seemed like it was as a kid. But I still enjoy reading, even if it tends to come in four page spurts every night before I turn off the light.

For the last several years, my friend Joel has provided a summary of the books he'd read in the previous year. The sheer volume of books he reads consistently makes me wonder whether he's either cloned himself, or never leaves the house. Seeing as I know from his fantastic sojourns around Tennessee that the latter isn't true, I remain with no other option than to believe the former. (I for one welcome our new overlord and his unholy clone army). Anyway, this year he read 74 books. Not only that, but he accompanied his post with some his amazing photography. I'm almost ashamed to make this post after reading his, but such is life. I hope he find this the sincerest form of flattery as I blatantly mimic his post again this year, picking some shots from the year that somehow match my paltry list of books (13 and a half).

Symbolic picture of my journey to reading this year, battered by life on all sides. And reading is a lighthouse. For some reason.

This was sort of a meh year in books, not only in number but in content. Even with three Cormac McCarthy novels in the mix, I just didn't read much this year that really blew me away as being amazing satisfying. It felt the same in terms of photography. I really didn't produce a lot that I thought was really good stuff. Here's to better luck next year.

Tales of the Jazz Age – F. Scott Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald is usually good for some good characters, but this book was a bit forgettable. I mean, literally forgettable. I had to go back and remind myself what it was about. It was a lot like a b-sides album for Great Gatsby or the Beautiful and the Damned.

Red Light,
Green Light
Green light (get it?)

Empire of the Summer Moon – S.C. Gywne
This sweeping story of the rise and fall of the Comanche and Quanah Parker was comprehensive, but teetered dangerously between sensationalistic portrayals of the Comanche as soulless savages and the opposite extreme detailing the injustices done unto them by the white settlers. When the author wasn't in either manic or depressive mode, it was very engaging. Overall though it reminded me of a history class where one kid constantly has to interject and tell everyone how awesome ninjas are, while another one has to break into self-righteous rants, and the professor just lets them go at it. In other words, it reminded me a lot of Erik Larson. I find history interesting enough without sensationalizing it.

Prairie Grasses

Child of God – Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy is perennially one of my favorite American authors. However, his proximity to favorite seems to move proportionally with which book I'm reading. His western novels, including the Border trilogy and his masterwork, Blood Meridian, are for me the epitome of the 20th century American novel. His books of the South and the Appalachians just don't draw me in to the same degree. Child of God is an incredibly disturbing book, and an incredibly well written one. As with his other novels, the place is as much of a character as the actual characters. But as with other entrees on the list, the novel seems more of an exercise in characters, and less in a story that touches on universal themes. It's uncannily creepy anti-hero is written with a beginning subtlety that's similar to the self-deception and understated nuance of Ishiguro's characters. But it just doesn't go anywhere near as far as I would like it to, while still going way past where I'd like it to go in another more grisly direction. Still an amazing work, just not overly enjoyable.

Mingus Mill
Mingus Mill, Great Smokey Mountains

Zone One – Colson Whitehead
I had really really high hopes for this book, which promised to be a literary, true literary, take on zombies. I'm a little zombied-out these days, but I still have a hard time turning down a good zombie book. It's incredibly well written in places, but ultimately just doesn't rise to literature grade. It's really a fan-fic zombie/apocalypse book with a lot of graduate-level English shoveled on top. For what it's worth though, Whitehead's style and pacing are quite good; it's just the lack of a better story to go with it that hamper this book. The “twist” near the ending playing on racial stereotypes was heavy-handed and lacked artfulness.


Boneshaker – Cherie Priest
It is very rare that I don't finish a book. I did not finish this rambling mess of a book. I like steampunk as a now somewhat passe design aesthetic, but that's about it. I read Moore's excellent League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but honestly, I think that was really the high tide point for the genre, and many wouldn't even call it steampunk. I kind of got the impression that to enjoy this book, one had to be a pretty big steampunk, dress up in sprockets at comic book conventions sort of big fan. Either that or you were new to our language, and thought this was a particularly engaging clockwork repair manual. To me, unfortunately, it was just really bad fan fiction-esque drivel.

Stirred Wood
Stirred Wood

Japanese Fairy Tales – Yei Theodora Ozaki
Since the advent of Kindles and smartphones in my life, I have been reading a larger portion of classics. To be honest, this is mostly because 1) they're often free as public domain works, and 2) part of me is still making the mental transition between reading good solid paper books, and being willing to pay money to read virtual books. While this seemed an odd choice stacked up against the volumes of literary masterpieces, it ended up being an interesting study in cultural value systems, which sounds interminably boring, but is the same basic idea as reading manga and saying “wow...the japanese have a thing about tentacles”, but in more literary and less penetrative context. The fairy tales at some points seemed oddly jarring due to the lack of cultural underpinning they were based on, which sparked some interesting thoughts about how we use stories to explain and enhance the underlying cultural values of a society. I could digress into Durkehim's totemic principle, but that really would be interminably boring. What I found most interesting after having read this book and thought these thoughts, was in subsequently reading about the author/translator. According to wiki, “...Ozaki came from an unusual background. She was the daughter of Baron Ozaki, one of the first Japanese men to study in the West, and Bathia Catherine Morrison, daughter of William Morrison, one of their teachers. Her parents separated after five years of marriage, and her mother retained custody of their three daughters until they became teenagers. At that time, Yei was sent to live in Japan with her father, which she enjoyed. Later she refused an arranged marriage, left her father's house, and became a teacher and secretary to earn money. Over the years, she traveled back and forth between Japan and Europe, as her employment and family duties took her, and lived in places as diverse as Italy and the drafty upper floor of a Buddhist temple.” The Author, it seems, embodied the bridge between the two cultural traditions, which casts the book in new light as well.

Lotus Blossom
Lotus Blossom

The Orchard Keeper – Cormac McCarthy
The second of three McCarty novels this year, it's another Tennessee novel. Place seems not only a vivid and tenable character in McCarthys novels, it also seems a force on the author's writing itself. Compared to the broad sweep of his western novels, his Tennesee/southern novels feel like the forests and ramshackle buidoings they explore exert a pressure on the writing as well as the characters. This is a testament to the solidity of place in McCarthy's work, but it's less enjoyable. I feel like I must almost be an apologist for McCarthy in these books, which is absurd because they still stand against some of the better American literature of their era. One just has to work a little harder to dig out the beauty. I don't know a lot about Cormac McCarthy as a person, but from reading most of his works, I have learned three potential things about him: 1) He loves the West, 2) he's somewhat scared of Mexico, and 3) he has an underlying disdain for Appalachia. None of these may actually be true, but comparing his westerns to his easterns, my take away is mostly that his westerns were healthier books for him. Orchard Keeper was better than Child of God, as it has an interesting set of characters while also having a fairly interesting story of bootlegger era Tennessee.

Foggy Treeline

Cat's Table – Michael Ondaatje
I really liked this book, which isn't altogether surprising, as I really like Ondaatje. It is an exercise in characters, but in a surprisingly expansive scope for a book that mostly takes place among children on a boat. It reminded me a bit of a much better written version of the basic story archetype from The Kite Runner. Ondaatje's more sweeping novels (Anil's Ghost, The English Patient) are a bit more serious, but I actually enjoyed the humor, even with tragedy underlining, of this book. The story of a boyhood passage is really the story of a passage from boyhood, and Ondaatje nails the changing voice of the narrator with style.

Boy and Sea

Kings of Infinite Space – James Hynes
Let me preface this by saying I work for a fairly bureaucratic organization in Houston, Texas. I know all the jokes about government (though we aren't really one), and government workers. I've told the jokes. This books starts off as a fairly smartly written satire of the unbearable lightness of being-in-a-cubicle in a Texas bureaucracy. At some point it devolves a bit from satire into over the top oddness. There were parts that were very well written, and parts that were just hard to read. Overall I can honestly say it's my favorite book about Texas bureaucrats that also involves zombie-esque horror and human sacrifice. Other than that, it had some fun moments, but overall was not a favorite.

Happy Erosion

The Cinnamon Peeler – Michael Ondaatje
This was an impulse buy along with another Ondaatje book I read last year. It is a dense book of poetry, rich with visual imagery and interwoven themes. But let me emphasize the dense. I had to reserve this collection for reading at times other than right before bed when it would have made my head explode. As with a lot of other Ondaatje works, it deals with issues of personal origin and change, and was very rewarding. A light read, however, it was not. I could have probably burned through a couple more books in the time it took me to put this one to bed. But I'm not sorry.

Wood layers

The Rough Riders – Theodore Roosevelt
Another free-on-Kindle work, this was just damn enjoyable. A bit more dry than some of his other works, but still written with that famous Roosevelt mix that can only be described as equal parts thoughtful, dedicated scholar and rambunctious, mustachioed Tyrannosaurus. I started reading this in the bar of the Menger Hotel in San Antonio, mostly for the somewhat pretentiously self-involved idea of it being cool to read a Roosevelt work while drinking in the same bar where he actually drank and recruited some of his rough riders. The Menger is a historic place and its bar is pretty much given over to Roosevelt memorabilia. Like much of his work, it's less a pure history, and more a no holds barred bear hug of a love letter to a time and place. I can deal with some of the less than PC elements, because Roosevelt is just such fun to read.

Alamo at night
Alamo Plaza, San Antonio

Roughing It – Mark Twain
For me, Mark Twain has the distinction of being an author I admire, but whose books usually don't do much for me. Unlike Roosevelt, whose books on travel and the west are filled with exuberance that ages well, Twain's humor is a bit corny in a lot of places. Roughing it was worth the read, but you get the feeling that it was probably a lot more hilarious when things, and people, were a bit slower. Still, when he's on, he's on, and this story of intercontinental travel is definitely on in places.

Hiking Party
The Hiking Party

Suttree – Cormac McCarthy
Yet another slog through a McCarthy Tennesee novel. I am caught between the feeling that I should have read all his western stuff first so it didn't get shaded by these books, and the feeling that I'm glad I got hooked on him first, and then quietly came down from the rush with these lesser works. Of the three this year, however, Suttree was the best. While still a character-focused book without an epic storyline, it's the pinnacle of McCarthy's Tennessee novels. The place is almost the primary character in this book, and the tension between it and the Buddha-esque protagonist as he winds his way through a collection of its denizens is palpable. The counterpoint between Suttree's spartan existence on the rundown fringes of mid-century Knoxville and the tragedies of his past play out in his struggle to remain a shepherd of his fellow men in his own flawed way, among the almost oppressive weight of their surroundings and failings. It's much more reminiscent of the “we went to Mexico and then things went bad” stages of McCarthy's westerns than the odd and claustrophobic Child of God and The Orchard Keeper. This was not an easy read though...the writing, at times, is almost as speaking in tongues as Joyce in Ulysses. What is fantastic, though, is his ability to mirror his character so artfully by the change in style throughout the book. It wasn't my favorite McCarthy work, but in terms of the writing alone, it is one of his best accomplishments.

Hard Times
Restaurant (antiqued)
The Hardtimes

Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
Speaking of dense, I was not expecting Conrad's story to be as dense as it turned out to be. I was expecting something more along the lines of Jack London and the usual straight ahead adventure stories of the era. While Heart of Darkness has those elements, it also is undeniably nuanced and layered. A lot of other Conrad novels don't really aspire to that level of writing, so I was pleasantly surprised. This is another of my list of “I was supposed to read this in High school but didn't” books. To some degree it amazes me the level of books we feed to our children, and the comparative level of books we end up reading ourselves. At least I hope kids still have to suffer through things like Siddhartha and Ethan Frome. (Though not Tess of the D'Urbervilles which was just straight up horrendous.) It's often far better fare than the crap we consume. But I digress. Heart of Darkness was really good stuff.

Hollow and
Leaf (B&W)
Hollow and Leaf

My list of books for this year, which is already behind schedule, looks to be a bit more promising and include a bit more authorial variety. Up next is Cather's My Antonia (which I'm already in love with after only the first chapter), Murakami's 1Q84 (which may very well kill me to get through due to its ponderous bulk), Enduring Love and Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan, The Wilderness Diaries of Everett Reuss in counterpart to the Journals of Lewis and Clark, and the new Justin Cronin novel. We'll see what else comes along...

1 comment:

Joel said...

I had a similar experience with foreign fairy tales several years ago. I was in an international book club, and one of the books we read was a collection of Romanian fairy tales. The images were fascinating, but the basic morality plays underpinning the stories were completely different and, even with discussion, sometimes inscrutable for us.

Also, don't feel bad about a low number. Remember all of the other people, whose number is zero.