Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My Year in Books, 2013

I hadn't expected this year's reading list to be overwhelmingly spectacular. In my defense, this is usually a sound bet, as none of my yearly tallies speak to a dedicated devotion to reading timei. With much of the year revolving around our impending, and then all-consuming, bundle of joyii I had not expected to get a lot of reading done.

Put down the book, Dad, or I'm totally going to punch you. In the heartstrings.

As it turned out, spending long hours comforting a newborn actually was a boon to reading time. While a large portion of the reading revolved around Lydia's first booksiii, I managed to sneak in a couple of my own. All that sequestered time with baby on lap and book in hand added up, apparently, and some of the weightier worksiv were actually toward the end of the year.

Good, bad, and forgettable, this was my year in 22 books, in roughly the order of their reading. 

 My Antonia (Willa Cather) – My first book of the year actually ended up being one of the most enjoyable. I've never read Cather's O Pioneer!, but may have to consider it. Antonia has captures the sweeping sense of place of the unbroken prairie, and has wonderful characters. The writing doesn't translate as well to modern sensibilities (latter era Antonia comes off as hick-ish), but it's still a classic. For some reason My Antonia and Wyeth's “Christina's World” seem like perfect companions.

BPRD, Volumes 1-14 (Mike Mignola, et al.) - As loathe as I am to count graphic novels as “books” per se, I think the full story arc sweep of this weighty collection makes the cut. In opposition to the super-hero world of barely adequate spandex, Mignola has crafted a world steeped in mythos, with an underlying mix of ascetic aesthetic and dystopian gloom. His heroes are deeply flawed and fragile, without succumbing to the faux-noir grit of a Wolverine, etc. Coming from the greater Hellboy universe (not the bastardized movie version, but the anti-hero-as-solitary-wanderer graphic novels), there is a deeper philosophy to the stories, much like the superb Sandman stories by Neil Gaiman.

Peter and Max (Bill Willingham) – In the same vein as BPRD, Bill Willingham has crafted a fantastic adult take on the storytale characters in Fables. What Frank Miller and Alan Moore did for Batman, Willingham does for the titular fable/fairy tale//nursery rhyme characters like Snow White. This novel is a spinoff taking place in the same universe, but lacks the grit and wit of the original. Willingham just isn't a good enough author to carry it off without the beautiful whimsical-meets-noir art of the graphic novels.

Catching Fire (Suzanne Collins) - While I had my issuesv with the Hunger Games, it was still a fun read, and much better than the surge of paranormal teen trash that seems to be flooding the market since those Books About Glittery Vampires and Bare-chested Werewolvesvi That Will Not Be Named came out. However, this sequel is a step backwards. The repetition of the crises of the first book, without much broader depth, made this a shallow read. You could simply have had one page that said “Hunger Games: ditto”.

Mockingjay (Suzanne Collins) – Like Catching Fire, the end to the series was fairly yawn-worthy. It was nice that it didn't have yet a third hunger games, but it just didn't strike the same sense of urgency as the first novel. As trilogies go, this was more Matrix than Star Wars.

The Twelve (Justin Cronin) – I had really liked the page-turning pace of The Passage. Unfortunately, the follow up really just fell apart. Characters wandered without much purpose, the story moved in uneven fits and starts, and by the end of the book, it really hadn't advanced the original compelling story much. This is another series where I think I would have been happy to leave things as they were at the end of the first book.

Oh Boy, You're Having a Girl (Brian Klems)– Impending dadhood spurred a dip into some baby lit. More comedy than baby guidebookvii, this was a quick, enjoyable read. I dread the onslaught of pink to come.

New Dad's Survival Guide (Scott Mactavish) – As witty as “Oh Boy” was, this was equally dull. Written, poorly, for an archaic stereotype of a clueless dad that could only exist in a 90's sitcom. It's like someone took a baby manual from 1980's Soviet Russia, with all the charm that implies, and then blended it with a Mountain Dew Commercial in a halfhearted attempt to make banal baby guide fodder EXTREME!. There is actually a camo edition. 

The Spirit Level (Seamus Heaney) – When Heaney passed away this year, a great literary voice was silenced. I had a few of his more recent volumes of poetry I'd been meaning to get around to, so I thought it fitting to do so this year. This first go was a pretty dense read, and probably got less time and effort than it deserves. As much as I can appreciate the depth of brilliance represented here, I found it less enjoyable than some of his earlier, more accessible works. This likely says much more about me than the collection. In general, a much more self-reflective work than others previous; no directly powerful poems like “Limbo” or “Easter, 1916”, just much more subtle touches.

The Electric Light (Seamus Heaney) – As above, another dense work, but more enjoyable. I still think his early stuff was the bestviii, but it may be in no small part due to the less-jaded perspective I read “Selected Poems” in back in 1997. I think, in completely unfair fashion, I mentally try to juxtapose Yeats with Heaney such that I'm always a bit surprised at Heaney's depth, and a little disappointed in his relative dryness compared to Yeats poetic wildness.

Guns, Germs and Steel (Jared Diamond) – I'd avoided this piece of pop-history, but in a reading lull decided to finally give it a shot. In general I think he did a fairly decent job of summarizing a fairly vast sweep of human history in one book, even if it mean dramatically oversimplifying a great deal. The book is remarkably less about its titular trio than it is about the advent and progression of agriculture, which was a welcome surprise. However, Diamond steered far too often out onto very specific limbs or spent disproportionate amounts of time talking about his beloved New Guinea, such that there seemed to be a good deal of hammering of square pegs into round holes. Unfortunately, this is par for the course, in my opinion, for any book that tries to make specific, sweeping, simplistic statements about the progress of human history. Engaging, but academically questionable.

The Hangman's Daughter ( Oliver Potsch) – This odd little book got read mostly because 1) I thought it was something else, 2) it was free on Kindle, and 3) I hate putting down a book once I start it. Odd medieval murder mystery, somewhat cartoonish and two-dimensional. Really just sort of forgettable.

The Alchemist (Paulo Coehlo) – This is one of those books people kept being astonished I hadn't read, so I read it. It was satisfyingly well written, although it seemed to be intimating with no degree of subtlety toward a larger philosophyix. I was perfectly happy to read a well written adventure story and leave it at that.

No Country for Old Men (Cormac McCarthy) – This was one of the few McCarthy works I hadn't read, since I had mistakenly seen the movie first. It was great relative to most other fiction of the past couple decades, but not one of McCarthy's best. It read more like a particularly gritty Steinbeck novel than something like the apocalyptic prophecy of Blood Meridian. Still, for all the books that have been ruined by seeing the movie first, I can't imagine better casting than Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, and Josh Brolin for the characters here and the book translated fairly well to a movie, lacking McCarty's usual depth of language.

The Things They Carried (Tim O'Brien) – this book got read almost primarily because it was within reach on the shelf with a baby in my lap. I knew vaguely of it, and expected the usual sort of collection of war memoirs. However, I was pleasantly surprised at O'Brien's almost surrealistic blending of truth and story, and his focus on how story and narrative affect our perceptions on an individual and historical level. It's like Kazuo Ishiguro and Steven Ambrose had a literary baby.

The Book of Dragons (Edith Nesbitt) – This was another surprise find in the free section of Kindle Books. This collection of short stories is dryly witty in classic English style, with just a touch of Monty Python-esque absurdity. Ostensibly a childrens' book of dragon stories, it's really more of a dragons-as-understated-but-not-remotely-serious-metaphor. It reminded me a good deal of Graham Greene.

The Roundhouse (Louise Erdrich) – Hands down the best I read this year. I routinely like to think of enjoying a book as being dependent on either exceptional writing, or exceptional story, or a fairly good mix of each. It's nice to find those books that meet all the criteria without descending into pretentiousness. The Roundhouse's story full of the rhythm and crises of modern reservation life is earnest, compelling, and tragic, and deeply satisfying. The characters and dialogue are well fleshed out without being overwritten. All in all there is a subtle touch to the balance of story and back story, and I couldn't find much of anything to dislike about the book. Always great to find a new-to-me author with other works to explore.

A Song of Fire and Ice, Books 1-4 (George RR Martin) – Dear Mr. Martin; We, the reading audience, publishing establishment, and critics everywhere have done you a great disservice. Someone, somewhere along the way should have clued you in that it is not only possible, but sometimes quite PREFERRABLE, to write books that weigh in at less than a small child, and are less numerous in page count than the equivalent year span of the Roman Empire. I mean seriously, even Tolstoy would complain about how many unnecessary characters you have. Even Herman Woulk would say “Dude, that book is a little long”. And seriously, the closer the end of the fourth book I got, the more alarmingly rape-y they gotx. Martin does some cool world-building in terms of depth, but it really feels incredibly derivative of Tolkien, Arthurian legend, Dragonlance, etc. The one thing that kept me hooked in the first couple books was the pacing and political machinations. However, that really starts to fall apart in book 3, and book 4 is just a mess. Honestly, I was not at all sad about the Red Wedding. I had sort of hoped it would have a greater death toll if for nothing else than to get rid of even more of the two-dimensional hacky characters. Of course, I read all four and will rear the fifth, so that says something about either the books or me. But man...4000 pages. Damn.
  • A Game of Thrones – The level of writing is certainly not literature grade, and at points is barely above dungeons and dragons fan fic, but the pacing and scope of the story is ambitious. Of all the novels, this one really stands out as a well-crafted work. You can feel Martin's enthusiasm for this new world he's created, but he is patient as he gradually lays it out in expanding circles. It's greatly derivative, but enjoyable. While some of the characters are really novel, a great number are just set dressing. Writing bad; story rambunctiously good.
  • A Clash of Kings – Not as singularly compelling as the first, but the pace keeps up, and the characters get a little fleshing. The cataclysmic ending is satisfyingly epic.
  • A Storm or Swords – And so begins the endless wandering. This for me is where the series has some bright spots, but also starts to unravel. Martin has so many characters, even 1000 page tomes can't flesh them out. Some of the discussion of banner men and minor houses start to read like the Bible passages of who begat who begat who. And it's getting rape-ier. Still, a good following could tie up a lot of these loose ends....
  • A Feast for Crows – is not the tying up that was needed. This book could have been completely omitted and the series would have suffered little loss of continuity. The writing is badly degraded, the characters wander seemingly aimlessly, and little of anything compelling happens. With the exception of one or two characters, most devolve into cardboard cutouts, and some major characters don't even make an appearance. This is just overall bad writing and worse editing. I'm hoping the next book is better.

Ed King (David Guterson) – I hadn't even realized Guterson had another book out, and hadn’t even finished his last, when I got this for Christmas. With time to kill on the vacation and plane ride home, I blew through this book at a fast clip. However, that's not an indication of it's worth. This novel is nominally a modernized retelling of Oedipus Rex (Ed King, get it?), but it doesn't even need to be. If anything, Guterson almost makes the same mistake David Wroblewski made in “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” by trying to fit a wonderfully written world to an existing storyline when it really wants to go somewhere much better, In Sawtelle, it failed miserablyxi. In Ed King, it works, mostly because the story Guterson writes around that very basic substructure is so well-crafted. The characters and dialogue are natural, and fully realized. There is a great mix of the underlying absurdity of the mundane, universal humanity, and constant press of destiny. It ends up working very well, but more so as a frank look at the frailty and tackiness humanity is capable of,  the mirroring of these flaws that saturated the 70's and 80's, and their conversion to the modern era.



iEspecially compared with the Good Folks Over At “A Fiercer Delight and a Fiercer Discontent” and “Are There Any More Cookies” whose yearly reading lists routinely rival the enumerated Library of Congress' archives.
ii“Bundle of Joy” does not adequately convey the full range of emotions that fill the metaphorical conveyance that is our daughter. I might also add: Package of Sleeplessness, Knapsack of Cute, Basket of Screaming, Box of Famished, and Pallet of Parental Freak Out.
iiiSome of which actually ended up being more intellectually compelling than the some of the books on my adult reading list. Seriously, some of her stuff was pretty insightful, like the book about the nation's unwillingness to surrender a romantic image of agriculture in the face of modern agribusiness (“Go Tractor, Go!”), and the one about the inherent bias of conservation efforts toward more aesthetic species (“Touch and Feel Cute Animals”), not to mention a really spectacular look at the inherent inevitability of change in the life and death cycle (“The Very Hungry Caterpillar”). It's entirely possible that lack of sleep has made me read more into these works than was intended. Still better than 4000 pages of faux chivalry. Looking at you here, Martin.
ivWeightier either in terms of content, or in the case of Mr. Martin's ponderous tomes, sheer page count and bulk.
vBesides the fact that it is incredibly derivative of much better works like The Lottery, Battle Royale, The White Mountains, etc., I didn't think it was exceptionally well written, even for the intended audience's level.
viIn the race to the bottom of the barrel, I'm pretty sure there is now a series simply called “The Glittery Vampires and Bare-chested Werewolves Chronicles”.
viiI tried not to read too many baby books. By all rights this list should also contain sections of What to Expect When You're Expecting, etc. I have enough trouble vacationing out of a guidebook; I really don't want to parent too much out of one either.
viiiIs this poetic hipsterism? “Oh I totally was into him before he was the Poet Laureate....sell-out.”
ixHowever, I read it in a vacuum, so I really am still not sure if this is part of a broader worldview or just a well-done take on the role of prophecy in traditional hero/quest stories. I tend to be more of a “Moby Dick was just a big white whale” kind of guy than an “Eskimo (highlighted)” sort, trying to read too much into things
xThis was actually a bit disconcerting. I mean, the books were really, really rape-fixated, especially toward the end. I don't mean to make light of it, it's a serious topic, but in a book that's not really making a lot of focused social commentary (despite the extrapolations I'm sure exist on the internet), it's hard to buy that the fixation on rape is really just an empowering statement about the challenges strong women face. Hyperbole aside, I really did have to consider whether I wanted to keep reading the series, given how much physical domination, ownership and rape of women was such a recurring and underlying theme. I hate to say it, but I've really come away with the feeling that Martin has some issues to work out regarding the ladies. I think, especially if I was a woman, I'd be a bit discomfited with the treatment of rape in the book. I mean, I don't expect him to be heavy handed about it, saying “and she was raped, WHICH WAS VERY VERY BAD AND IS A SERIOUS ISSUE”, but he often veers toward the other end of things. There were instances where women were told they needed “a good raping”, and where the mass rape of a woman (Lollys) was treated as an ongoing joke. Even if you argue Martin is using rape as a black hat symbol for the bad guys, it really keeps coming back to seeming like he's fixated on it by its overwhelming prevalence. Even his strong female characters keep getting dominated by, or rescued by, stronger men. I'm sure a hundred and 5 women's studies students have already had a field day with this. However, without even being on a standing where I'm looking to be offended...this creeped me out a bit.

xiOphelia is a literal dog! Sigh.