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.