Monday, July 6, 2015

My (Half) Year in Books

I usually wait until the end of the year to summarize everything I've read. But that's gotten to be a chore now that I'm reading a little more. While I'm not reading quite enough to justify a monthly list like my friend Joel, I am taking a cue from him (as usual) and breaking my yearly list up in halves. If nothing else, it adds another post to my long-neglected blog.  

It's been a weird mix of books thus far, from classic literature to war diaries. With a toddler nearing two, I have felt like it's hard to really dig into weightier literature, so a lot of the first half of the year has been lighter fare. 

January – January got the year off to a good pace, but mostly because it involved less dense reads.

Ready Player One – Ernest Kline
My first book of the year was this love letter to 80’s and 90’s geek culture recommended by my friend Joel. Ostensibly the story revolves around a worldwide race (Go Speed Racer, Go!) to unlock clues in a virtual game world, in which most of the population is enmeshed. The pop culture references were fun, but the writing was so-so, and the characters were fairly flat. It’s pretty derivative of some better works (Avalon, etc) and felt mostly like a generic story archetype that had some really fun elements pasted on. That being said it was a quick, sentimental read.

Half Way Home – Hugh Howey
Last year I tore through Howey’s Wool, Shift, Dust, and Sand. None of them were exceptionally well written, but they were easy reading between weightier works, and were well-paced, if not exceptionally original, thrillers .When a Howey work using more than one word in its title[i] popped up as a recommendation on Kindle, I took the bait. Half Way Home was a solid short work. The story is of a future in which humans are sent in unconscious breeding seed ships out among the stars to start colonies on other worlds, and what happens when one goes wrong. The world-building is nicely handled, even if the writing is fairly pulpy. 

Fight for Dawn – John de Guzman
John is my…I don’t know what to call my sister’s boyfriend? Boyfriend in law just sounds wrong. He’s a bit of a polymath, and it’s been great to get to know him this year. He wrapped up a novel he’d been working on for years, and my sister recommended it to me. In describing it as a techno-samurai-drug-caper-noir-mafia-police thriller I am not sure I am still capturing the crazy scope of this book. Jon writes in a fairly rambunctious style, and the plot moves along at a rapid pace. In Fight he spins the story of a Tokyo cop/samurai waging an often one-man war against a drug wave, while an ex-cop mafia hitman hurtles toward him on a inevitably confrontational velocity. I enjoyed the book, but what is really astounding to me is the technofuturistic foresight John has…the original writing is about a decade or so old, but John was describing tech and concepts that are just now cutting edge (and beyond)[ii]. I want to give him all my money, point him toward the Nasdaq and bid him to have its way with it.   A sequel is forthcoming.

Finding Birds on the Great Texas Birding Trail – Ted Eubanks, et al.
This guide was recommended to me by a friend during a discussion of modeling fecal bacteria contributions from heron rookeries. This is the excitement that is my life. That being said, this is a nicely devised guide to not only great locations on Texas’ Great Texas Birding Trail[iii] but detailed information on how to locate species by habitat, etc. Most of the local information in it was not new to me, but there were some nice insights and it would make a great guide for someone new to the area. This is another occasion when I can say I know the guy who literally wrote the book on something.

February – February was a lax month for reading. I started and abandoned a couple books before finally digging into a couple.

Of a Feather – Scott Weidensaul
This recommendation came from a website list of must-read naturalist fare. Weidensaul gives a great account of the early days of ornithology; crusty old men and oddball loners (and a surprising number of military officers) out shooting birds and making all manner of arcane measurements, long before watching birds became of any interest. The progression to the current day blurred dichotomy between the avid birdwatching/birding community and the scientific vocation of ornithology was interesting to follow and dwelt among the pages of the broader history of western civilization in the latter centuries. If for nothing else, it was enjoyable simply to put faces and stories to the surnames often attached to species (Wilson of Wilson’s Warbler, etc).  

The Magicians – Lev Grossman
Both my friends Stan and Joel recommended this novel, and I’m glad they did. Grossman is a literary critic, but has staked his place as a novelist as well; something I’d expect few critics can do. His story of disenchanted young magicians is heavy on the homage/skewering[iv] of both the Harry Potter and Narnia series.  The story centers on a young magician who is lured into a school for magic users, and then on to another realm of talking animals, etc. Unlike Hogwarts and Narnia, though, this is a more real-world take on such things, soaked in booze, sex and drug addled debauchery and existential angst. The lead character is not utterly redeemed, his mistakes have tremendous consequences, and he’s not entirely likable…and the story is all the better for it. Despite the heavy references, the book does an admirable job at world-building. It’s nice to have fantasy that isn’t entirely whimsical with silly spell names (Rowling), or overly Renn Faire (Martin).  I’m already planning to get the other two books in the trilogy.

March – In penance for February, I hit the books harder in March.

Bogged Down in Bora Bora – Ervan Kushner
The recommendation for this book came from someone online while I was digging into my grandfathers’ service record in WWII[v]. My grandfather Swain was part of the Regimental Band for the 198th Coastal Artillery Regiment in the South Pacific during WWII. They were the first unit to ship out in the Pacific after Pearl Harbor, and their goal was to provide artillery defense of a new base to be built on Bora Bora. While being shipped out to an island paradise sounds infinitely better than trudging through hedgerows in Normandy or slashing through jungle carnage in Guadalcanal, they were at the tip of the spear[vi] for a while, holding the line when the Japanese overrun of the remaining communication and trade routes of the Pacific seemed imminent. However, by the time they were set up, Japan had lost at Midway, and the war mostly passed them by. This book was written by one of the senior officers for the regiment, and gives a fairly dry but interesting take on the day to day decisions, peril, and boredom of their time there[vii]. Kushner is not a compelling writer in general, but he does make some insights here or there. It was interesting to see where my grandfather’s stories meshed in with what was going on at higher levels.  I had to interlibrary loan this from the Department of Defense, so it lead to one of my favorite parenting statements thus far; “Lydia, stop eating that. It belongs to the Pentagon.”

Codex – Les Grossman
I had picked this up because a friend recommended it when I said I’d read The Magicians.  As first novels go…this was less than a breakthrough. I have a bad habit of finding everything to be somewhat derivative, but in this case this mostly forgettable book really felt like just a mishmash of pages from existing books (namely the excellent Possession and The Name of the Rose, and the less excellent DaVinci Code). The general plot revolves around a guy who seemed equal parts Patrick Bateman and the unnamed protagonist from Fight Club, and a female academic who are racing to unlock the secrets of a book tied to conspiracy, historical mystery, and symbols. The ending was anticlimactic, the characters flat, and the story felt like I’d already read it. It was so forgettable I had to go back and read a summary to remember it three weeks later. 

The World War II Diary of Private Louis Hester – Louis Hester
This diary spans several years of the same Bora Bora operation my grandfather took part in, and provides a drastically different viewpoint from Kushner’s Bogged Down… discussed above. Hester was a private, and gave a very matter of fact account of the time on Bora Bora from the bottom of the ladder. Mostly monotonous, there were a few interesting bits.

Delaware National Guard (Images of America)
In addition to the Kushner and Hester works above, this overarching history of the Delaware National Guard provided some interesting pictorials on the Bora Bora mission. Light on content, but it paired well with the other work. I also read accounts from the brigadier general level, which put their experience in a global context. That being said, I don’t think I need to read any more about Bora Bora in this lifetime…

Station 11 – Emily St. John Mandel
Station 11 is yet another in a long line of post-apocalyptic novels. As much as a I generally love the genre, I have not really found many that are of much literary value (Whitehead’s Zone One tried, but was ultimately pretty bad). 
Station 11 is the rare exception. The human interaction and stories of the a band of Shakespearean actors traveling from town to town after a great fall really transcend the usual action-movie fodder. Well written and engaging, it reminded me of a literary/post apocalyptic Carnivale.  

April – Right back to laziness in April.

O Pioneers – Willa Cather
I had really enjoyed Cather’s My Antonia,  so I thought I’d give the other two novels in her series about prairie pioneers a shot. Pioneers has a tremendous sense of place, but feels a little flatter than Antonia. The story of the trials and personalities of a pioneer family is a somewhat dated rags to riches story, with a heavy Steinbeck feel. That being said, it’s still an excellent, if not timeless, book.

The War of the Cottontails – William Cubbins
Yet another military history book (a genre I don’t usually care for), this one detailing my paternal grandfather’s WWII unit, a B26 bomber group serving out of Italy. I was mostly interested in learning more about the unit’s history and time in Italy. However, this book only spends about a third of its length on the unit, the rest being an account of one crew’s struggle to survive after being shot down and taken into a POW camp. While I was disappointed there wasn’t more about the unit itself, I have to admit the book is written with far more skill than one would expect. Cubbins breaks down what could have been a dry recounting of missions and technical details into a very engaging, human account. He’s a far better author than the book ultimately deserves, but I ended up enjoying it in spite of myself.

May– Our jaunt out to Monterey, California lead me to include the location-appropriate Kerouac and Steinbeck works.

The Song of the Lark – Willa Cather
The last in Cather’s prairie trilogy, this is the least like the other two. While the first two novels dealt heavily in the sense of pioneers breaking into new country, this book follows a prairie girl who, essentially, goes back to civilization in pursuit of a musical career. The mix of unrequited loves and hopes, long trains of dialogue, and overall tone of the book really felt a lot like “Chekov goes to the Prairie”.  It’s undeniably well crafted, but the main character falls short of likeable.This is perhaps the first full novel I’ve “read” via audiobook. Unfortunately, the audiobook was an amateur effort, with several readers of differing skill, which took away somewhat from the experience.

Cannery Row – John Steinbeck
Cannery Row takes place in Monterey, California, and plays out themes of human nature against a backdrop of colorful characters of the bottom rungs of society. This is generally the same locale and basic themes of Tortilla Flat, which takes place in the same area.  There is a great sense of place, and the characters are well developed, but not much really happens. It feels like an elongated short story. Like Tortilla, it was a quick fun read, but not as weighty as his more renowned works.

Big Sur – Jack Kerouac
In counterpoint to the mostly light-hearted fare of Cannery Row, Big Sur is at once frenetic and tragic. Keruoac creates a very sense-based picture of the raw beauty of Big Sur, and an honest (if hyper) account of a failed last shot at love, redemption, etc. While Sur shares the mile-a-minute, stream-of-consciousness energy  On the Road it can’t hide an internal deterioration. The energy shooting out of youth and enthusiasm in Road is instead borne from desperation in Sur. Essentially a biographical work, it finds Kerouac near the end of his life, fighting for a last chance to change his velocity. The heartbreak of the book, though, pales in the face of the tragedy of the context. Kerouac will ultimately fail in this last effort, and die a few years later from his alchoholism. You can feel his desperation pouring into each page, and both the reader and author can see the end coming. While Road gets the popularity, I think Sur is really Kerouac at his most painfully honest and artistic. It’s the final chapter on a needlessly short life, writ large and elegant with all the tragedy and hope and questions of human existence.

June – June was the month where I started 8 different books, but only finished three. The others will have to wait for July.

Fables (Volumes 18-22) – Bill Willingham
While I usually shy away from counting graphic novels as books read, 5 collected volumes seemed weighty enough to count. Willingham’s Fables is an old favorite; a beautifully and painstakingly crafted world in which characters from fairy tales and stories are all real, exiles from other worlds, who have found haven in the mundane realm of earth. Willingham’s writing is wry and snappy, his characters fully-fleshed, and the artwork  a perfect blend of realism and Alan Davis-esque softening. These are fables with the happily ever after stripped away, who love, and die, and have bodily functions. I had read the first 17 volumes several years ago, with the major story arc ending within that span. I revisited the series to see how it progressed since then. While it was still a worthwhile read, it is starting to feel like a stretch, and has lost some of its original drive.

Cloud Atlas– David Mitchell
Cloud Atlas was a pleasant surprise. This tale of interlocking stories across vast expanses of time was surreal enough to touch on broader concepts of the human experience, while also having characters with unique voices. The ending(s) were not as satisfying as I wanted, but this is literature-grade writing without a doubt. What I really enjoyed was the author’s ability to really shift his whole style with each period/character, to reflect not just the voice, but the perceptions of the character, in a uniquely subtle way. All in all it’s a graceful, intelligent work. I’m torn about whether or not to see the movie.

The Magician King – Lev Grossman
The Magicians had been a pleasant surprise, so I’m going to wade through the other two novels in the series, as much as I hate the current fascination with trilogies. The pastiche of Harry Potter meets Narnia meets Great Gatsby continues on with the further adventures of the characters in the fantasy realm of Fillory. While the gimmick wears a little thinner in this sequel, Grossman does enough to make his world robust and his stories unique that he carves out his own niche. The writing isn’t especially wonderful, but the characters are continually compelling in a flawed and ultimately human way, with dialogue that might have come from Michael Chabon. I’m interested to see how the final novel plays out. For something that borrows so heavily from other works, I’m surprised I’m like Grossman’s series as much as I do.  

The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman
Graveyard was a nice way to round out the first half of the year. It was classic Gaiman, dark, whimsical, and captured the imagination. Not fluff, but not dense literature. The story of a boy orphaned under horrendous circumstances and taken in by the specters at a local graveyard has elements of The Jungle Book, etc, but as per usual, Gaiman makes the story archetype his own. Not his best ever, but still enjoyable.

That was my half year of books…20 in all. Coming up in the second half: Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, Gaiman’s American Gods, Faulkner’s Go Down Moses, Murakami’s 1Q84, and others. Still shooting for at least 36.


[i] I am looking forward to further single word, substance-based book names like “Pebble”, “Silt”, “Cobble”, “Rayon”, “Linen”, etc.
[ii] Also, he somehow managed to foresee that he would have a girlfriend named Dawn later on.
[iii] The GTBT is really a pretty remarkable thing. This is a well documented, well demarcated series of hundreds of location of specific importance or habitat for birds. It is literally both a road map to bird areas in any given location, but also a great description and tour of the various habitats and ecoregions of Texas. The amount of effort
[iv] Some criticism of Grossman focuses on his critic side showing up in his skewering of Potter and Narnia. Personally, as much as I halfway enjoyed both series, they both deserve to be skewered. Both are incredibly derivative of general archetypes, and in Potter’s case, much superior precursors (The Dark is Rising, in particular). Both are overly saccharine in places, and feel pandering to some degree, even recognizing that these are, nominally, childrens’ lit. I think his use of their archetypes is no different (and better handled to some degree) than theirs of previous works.
[v] I know…birding, genealogy, fecal bacteria…..I live the life of a particularly dull retiree.
[vi] Though they never actually saw any action…I think my grandfather’s most harrowing tale of injury was a concussion from a falling coconut.
[vii] It was also a fairly hard book to get a hold of. Few copies were produced, which is not shocking seeing that it was a less than thrilling account of a less than thrilling posting in a non-storied part of the war. 


stanford said...

I put Station 11 on my audible list. We read Cannery Row on a Montery trip too, which was great. Great stuff. I like the idea of the half year list.

Joel said...

I've had Station 11 parked on my wish list for a while. I may need to move it up when I can buy books again. (Must de-clutter the living room.)

I agree about Fables, too. It seemed like it was stretching for a while, and I eventually gave it up at what I felt should have been the final stopping point. (Not sure if you have reached it yet, and don't want to give it away.)

Dawn Cohen said...

Your consumption puts me to shame, as usual. Great synopses!!

Justin Bower said...

Dawn, you should see the lists Joel and Stan put up. It's crazy.