Wednesday, January 6, 2016

My Year in Books, 2015 (Part II)

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 up my yearly summary of books read into halves.The list for the first half of the year can be seen here

The latter half of the year was a mix of sloth and manic reading. While I read a massive number of books, an equally massive percentage of those books were toddler fare I read to my daughter, which doesn't count[i]. My own reading was a bit sparser until the end of the year.  

The Martian – Andy Weir
Look! It's the book everyone has read! Great book. The laconic wit in the face of adversity played very well against the pacing of the book. While the plot of abandoned astronaut struggling to survive on Mars had some plodding bits, it depended a lot on who you are. The best way I heard it described was "if you really liked that scene in Apollo 13, where the NASA engineers had to figure out how to make CO2 filters out of the available components, then this book is essentially all that scene". The problems and solutions were interesting looks into the mathematical mind's approach, though they did get somewhat repetitive in theme, if not specific context. 
 It felt like someone took a physics test and made a novel out of it, and for some reason it really, really worked. The internal dialogue was great, though the writing in general (while well suited to the subject) was not exceptionally artful. A fun, quick read. I'm glad they were pretty close to the book for the movie. I was scared halfway through that Hollywood would be thinking "I wonder what Michael Bay could do with this". The answer is, of course, 300% more explosions. 
American Gods – Neil Gaiman
Gaiman is nothing if not a master world builder. While the general story archetype of "gods among us" is not novel, Gaiman explodes it out to the nth degree in this conflict between the old world gods the immigrant brought with them, and the new technological gods we have created. It digs deep into mythology across the board, and the attention to detail is amazing. The rambunctious scope of the plot mostly makes up for writing that is not as subtle as some of his other works. The protagonist is a fairly under-developed character, more a vehicle for the story, but that may have been intentional. Rollicking, I believe, is the usual adjective for this sort of ride. 


Canticle for Liebowitz – Walter Miller
Canticle’s sci-fi take on the perseverance and adaptation of knowledge was epic in scope, if not writing style. The writing wasn’t bad per se, just not very literary. The story focuses on a post-apocalyptic religious order and its progression through millennia. It’s ambitious, but some of the symbology is a bit “hit-you-over-the-head-with-it”. Still, thought-provoking in that classic sci-fi way.   

History and Humor from the Homestead – Jotham Clark
Jotham Clark was the brother of one of my Clark ancestors, and a prominent citizen in the Finger Lakes area of NY. This account, written in his old age, is an interesting account of life in the early 1800’s in NY. It might not have crossed my threshold if it hadn’t been by someone in my extended lineage, but Jotham actually is a fairly decent, if discombobulated, writer.


Step Aside Pops!– Kate Beaton
Beaton’s cartoons continue to blend a mix of historical wit and intimate portrayals of small town Breton life. She’s got a lot of attention this year for Pops and for The Princess and the Pony, a children’s book (that I promptly bought for Lydia.), all of it well deserved. Her website Hark! A Vagrant! is one of the few webcomics I still read regularly.

The Buried Giant – Kazuo Ishiguro
Part of the reason September’s list was just one book was that I was busy leisurely reading Ishiguro’s latest. While this fantasy/history tale of a journey made by two elderly Britons turns into rich allegory about the history of Britain and the character of our memories, I was never quite as engaged as I was by his more weighty works (The Remains of the Day, etc). That being said, it’s easily the best novel I read all year. Ishiguro’s subtlety of language and penchant for unreliable narration by his characters is not lost in this more symbolic story.  

The Hobbit – JRR Tolkein
It has been a long time (like, ages covered in the Silmarillion long) since I first read the Hobbit. In advance of watching the new movies, I read the book again. It was interesting to see the transition between Hobbit and the later Lord of the Rings works. Hobbit is much more whimsical and intimate than the gritty, destiny-driven pathos of Rings. Reading the Hobbit was like going back to where you grew up. It brings back a sense of place and time, even if it all seems a bit smaller now.

Handwriting– Michael Ondaatje
Ondaatje is a dense read in prose, but even more so in poetry. As one of my favorite authors, I have been slowly making my way through his back catalog. I had previously read the surreal Collected Works of Billy the Kid and the nostalgic/sensory-based The Cinnamon Peeler and greatly enjoyed these poetry collections. Handwriting has a greater focus on sensual themes, and is intimate and exploratory. Like the other collections, it is a supremely dense but rewarding read.  

Our Man in Havana – Graham Greene
Greene’s satirical novel about a salesman turned reluctant intelligence asset was one I have picked up several times, but not finished. I love Greene’s dry wit, even if it’s especially dry in this book. However, Havana loses me a bit with its poverty of sense of place.  Set in post-war Havana, it seems rife for an explosion of imagery and color, but it comes off a bit as a particularly dry British suburb. The writing and story are engaging, but the titular Havana seems a distant set piece.

Anansi Boys – Neil Gaiman
This pseudo-sequel to American Gods (in the sense it takes place in the same universe and is linked by one semi-minor character from Gods) was not as action-packed or expansive as its predecessor. It explores the demi-god archetype of classical mythology in a modern setting, amongst the sons of the African trickster, Anansi. The characters were arguably better written in this novel; the protagonist from Gods was fairly aptly named as Shadow, since he really didn’t have much substance. While I’m not sure Gaiman’s voice for the characters here is as authentic as it could be, it is detailed and robust. The book is less about the world-building of Gods, than it is about taking a more detailed and nuanced view of a small piece of that universe.    

What If? – Randall Munroe
Munroe’s XKCD is a geek/nerd webcomic mainstay. It’s single serving vignettes of scientific/mathematical ideas alternates between thought-provoking, touching, and humorous. What If? steps away (mostly) from the comic format, and is a witty look at scientific answers to the kind of questions predominately asked by either teen boys playing D&D in their parents’ basements, or those of the cannabis tribe. While the straight-ahead responses to reader questions are themselves entertaining, the broader take-away from the book is revealed as an examination of how we think about science, and how that differs from how science/math works, especially in terms of how we comprehend scale and magnitude. Also, there are ‘splosions.


Food of a Younger Land – Mark Kurlansky (ed.)
During the Depression, Roosevelt’s WPA programs employed every manner of writer, artist, etc. Sadly, the ambitious America Eats project that was designed to detail the regional history and state of American food, the heart and soul of the nation, faltered and failed with the advent of World War II. Kurlansky picked through the rich troves of material that was created by hundreds of authors and editors for the project (including luminaries like Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston, et al.) to compile this completed work. While it’s a shadow of the intended project, this sampler of work from the different regions is a fascinating look at the culinary traditions of the nation before the mass production and conformity of the 50s and 60s. Kurlansky divides the book up by regions, like the original project, but follows no set list of content to include. The resulting is a sometimes-chaotic mix of recipes, descriptions of regional festivals, histories, anecdotes, etc. To his credit, Kurlansky doesn’t sugar coat some of the underlying racism/anti-Semitism in bits of the work, but instead puts it in a context that explains, without condoning, the views of the time. It’s a populist answer to the somewhat white-washed The American Plate.

Go Set a Watchman – Harper Lee
Here’s where I stand to get in a little trouble….I’m supposed to hate this novel. I’m supposed to be outraged at the way it was released (which, to some degree, I am), and disclaim any literary value it has. I went into this assuming I’d feel as self-righteously indignant (How can you make Atticus Finch a racist???) as a lot of other people. The problem is, I didn’t. Moreover, part of me (with a grain of salt for the power of novelty to sway comparative opinion) thinks this might be (or might have been) a better book than Mockingbird.

Watchman is set in the “future” of Mockingbird, although the going theory is that the former was actually an earlier draft rather than an intended sequel. Scout is a 20-something, Atticus an old man, and their southern home is not the idyllic small town of Mockingbird. It’s a turbulent time, and a harsher coming of age for Scout/Jean Louise. The writing is (sans editing) more powerful in a realistic way than the more simplistic morality of Mockingbird.   The characters and setting are more realistic.

It has its faults; it needs some (though not as much as you’d think) editing, its ending is a little loose, etc. But honestly, the more I read, the more I liked it, and the more I realized what a fantastic chance it gave me to evaluate just WHY the idea of Atticus as a racist, even a nuanced one, bothered me so much on its surface. The disparate takes on social justice between the two point out just how simplistic Mockingbird was at times, and how our love for Atticus has always been a little bit unrealistic. Mockingbird gently points to society’s issues with race, offering somewhat saccharine, ultimately nonthreatening ideological stances…Watchman skewers race, treats it with nuance and context, and doesn’t have easy answers. It’s a harder book to read emotionally, because we’ve been brought up on the myth of Atticus as the great white hero. But he’s a far more interesting character as a fallible man caught in the middle of social upheaval. Atticus as a hero was a comfortable way for us white folk to deal with the issue of race, and feel good about ourselves. We could see ourselves as Atticuses, but in reality, it was false comfort. People of color in Mockingbird were never more than set pieces and sacrifices on the altar of paternalistic white guilt. And I say this as someone who usually rolls his eyes a bit at the more esoteric dispatches on race from academia. We want Atticus to be a hero so we can absolve ourselves to some degree. Watchman doesn’t give us that. One can argue that the simple take on the story in Mockingbird  is really a matter of the world through young Scout’s eyes. In that sense, I don’t have any trouble reconciling the two novels as part and parcel of the same story, told through different lenses.

Regardless, it was a good read, even in its slightly chaotic state. Part of me really wonders if this is closer to what Lee really intended, and Mockingbird is the watered down version that they thought could actually sell.

Absolute True Diary of a Part Time Indian – Sherman Alexie
This “diary” written from the perspective of a young Native American teenager going through the dual channels of teen angst and cultural angst is light and irreverent almost to the point of losing its deeper messages in flippancy and really unnecessary cartoons. I read it mostly because it was available in the library’s free digital media selections and I needed a quick read. It wasn’t something I’d go out of my way to recommend, but it was an interesting counterpoint to more weighty works in the same genre, like Erdrich’s The Roundhouse. Alexie’s voice is far from literary, but has a degree of authenticity to it. While somewhat juvenile, the book scores by not romanticizing or victimizing the modern Native American experience.

Unbroken – Laura Hillenbrand
Unbroken  was eerily similar to another book I read earlier in the year (The War of the Cottontails). Both are about a B24 Liberator crew in WWII, both crews are shot down and put in prison camps, and both are based on true stories. Cottontails takes place in the European theater and Unbroken in the Pacific. While Unbroken was decently written, it had a tendency to devolve into glurge and maudlin melodrama at every turn. It reminded me a bit of Band of Brothers; interesting subject matter, but with a lot of flag-wavey kitsch piled on. In many places, Cottontails felt a lot more authentic, though Unbroken has at least a better underlying story. If you can stomach another serving of greatest generation sentimentality, it’s worth a read.  

Telegraph Avenue – Michael Chabon
I love Chabon’s dense, organic style. Kavalier and Klay remains one of my favorite examples of incredible characters and dialogue. Telegraph strays a bit away from his frequent focus on Jewish characters an communities, and delves into a complicated web of (primarily) black characters in the Berkley/Oakland transect of Telegraph Avenue.
I have to admit, I started this late in the year and still need to finish it. But so far, it has Chabon’s usual mix of strong characters with sometimes intense dialogue and place. He melds it all to an underlying theme of music and community, though less aptly than in some of the other works. Telegraph is a more sprawling work than the sometimes claustrophobic Kavalier and very intimately scaled Yiddish Policeman’s Union. Chabon is also a lot less structured in language, with long, flowing, stream of consciousness text pieces. One whole chapter follows rushed vignettes of the characters along a released parrot’s flight. It makes for a less easy and pat read, but it mirrors the themes of the books well, matching the free form jazz and funk at the heart of the protagonist’s mindset. I am not liking it quite as much (partly because I’m having trouble with my mental casting for some reason…) as some of his other works, but that still leaves it in the territory of excellent novels.

So 36 books this year, all told. Of them all, Go Set a Watchman, The Buried Giant, and Food of a Younger Land were the sort of stand-out favorites that will stick with me. Your mileage may vary. 


[i] That being said, I am now in a position to discuss the sociopolitical implications of the depictions of class and inter-species ethics of The Happy Man and his Dumptruck, and the evaluations of ethno-cullinary implications of mythological archetypes of Dragons Love Tacos.


Joel said...

I loved "Food of a Younger Land". :)

Justin Bower said...

I haven't read all of An American Plate yet, but I think I'll end up liking Food better. More chaotic, more populist. Neither a bad read (so far), but Food feels more like storytelling and less like a curated museum piece.