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.