Saturday, January 9, 2010

Books Read in 2009 - A Very Long Post

I read. I read newspapers, magazines and cereal boxes. I read street signs, warning labels and footnotes. But most of all I read books.

Sometime around the end of the summer I decided to keep track of all the books I had read in 2009, so I went around and catalogued them. There may be one or two from the end of 2008, but I figure they were close enough for this kind of project. It's not like I'm up for any awards here.

And since I have all this information, what else could I do but post it here, alphabetically by author, because that is just the kind of tragically hip person I am.

Sometimes Teh Sarcasm, it gets the best of me.

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Joe Abercrombie - The First Law trilogy (The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, and Last Argument of Kings); Best Served Cold

Abercrombie writes some of the blackest comedy you will ever find. All of these books are set in the same world and feature some of the standard characters of fantasy novels - the barbarian warlord, the soldiers, the kings and princes, and so on - but grubbier, wearier, more cynical, and more beaten down by the lack of alternatives that their world gives them. And when one of the main characters you are asked to sympathize with is a torturer by trade, then you know all bets are off. These are well written, well paced and well worth reading, but only for those who do not demand uplift from their books.

Jane Austin - Pride and Prejudice

I read this in order to read the next book, and I have little to say about it that I didn't already say earlier on this blog. I can respect the book, but I can't say I liked it.

Jane Austin and Seth Grahame-Smith - Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

A one-joke satire that was certainly made more entertaining by having read the original but didn't really have anything to say about the original other than "Hey, wouldn't it be neat to add zombies?" It seems to me that satire is meant to have a point - to illuminate things about the object of the satire that might have been overlooked otherwise, preferably in as vitriolic a manner as possible. This didn't do that, but the zombies were fun.

Jenny Conant - 109 East Palace

I read this as part of my preparations for teaching my atomic bomb class again this summer. It's the story of Los Alamos from the perspective of Dorothy McKibbins, who ran the office in Albuquerque that fronted the whole operation. It has a lot of fascinating stories that you don't get in the standard histories and gave me a few things to say in class, so it was definitely worth the time.

John Connolly - Black Angel

I first stumbled into John Connolly's work with The Book of Lost Things, which was a weirdly fascinating and starkly grim take on fairy tales, no pun intended. Well, okay, pun fully intended. You got me, what can I say. He's not known as a fantasist, though - he's known for his police procedurals, and when I found this at a book sale, I figured I'd see what he was like in his area. It's not that far off from his fantasy, really - dark, brooding, tinged with the supernatural, and compulsively readable. This is several volumes into his hero's history so I missed a lot of the backstory, but it did make me want to go out and fill in those gaps.

Michael Flynn - Eifelheim

An intriguing take on medieval history, this book jumps back and forth in time between modern scholars investigating the strange erasure of the medieval German town of Eifelheim from the records after the Black Death and the events going on in the town that led to it. The short answer (which is not a spoiler, since it is the main action of the book) is that aliens have crashed near Eifelheim, and the core of the book is about how these medieval minds and hearts dealt with this - how they tried to fit the aliens into a world view that is as alien to ours as that of the aliens themselves, and how they individually and collectively either failed or succeeded at doing so.

John Kenneth Galbraith - The Triumph

A satire of Cold War politics that I picked up mostly because I wanted to see if John Kenneth Galbraith could write fiction or not. The answer: well enough, I suppose. It's not a great book, but it moves right along and hits most of the buttons you would expect from something published in this genre in the 1960s.

Eric Garcia - Anonymous Rex; Casual Rex

Dinosaurs did not die out. They walk among us, disguised as human beings. Two of them are working as private eyes in Los Angeles. These are their stories. Once you get past the initial idea these are pretty standard gumshoe novels, but they're decently written and Garcia manages to make the characters remarkably plausible, all things considered. They're no less probable than anything Mickey Spillane ever wrote, anyway.

AC Greyling - Among the Dead Cities

Another book for my bomb class, this one by a British philosopher on the moral questions surrounding the Allied campaign of bombing cities during World War II. Greyling makes some interesting points, but ultimately this book has too much handwaving to be convincing. There are a lot of sections that start off acknowledging that the actors did not have the moral theories that Greyling has to work with but then continue on to insist that they should have had them and that Greyling can therefore judge them by those standards, and that's just arrogant nonsense.

Sara Gruen - Water for Elephants

A moving story of an old man and the circus he grew up in, with a fair amount of low comedy added in for good measure. The story flits back and forth between the Depression-era circus and the old man looking back on it, with all of the opportunities for thoughtful meditation this implies - though the main character is more edgy than thoughtful, which makes it even better. Love, loss, and elephants all combine to make a book that will stay with you for a while.

Joe Haldeman - The Forever War

One of the classics of science fiction and of war fiction in general. It features a couple of soldiers who serve in Earth's far-flung interstellar wars, with all of the time-bending that relativistic travel entails. They visit earth periodically - generations or centuries apart - and grow old fighting. It's hard to miss the Vietnam War commentary embedded in the story, since it was published around that time, but it works on its own merits as well.

Nick Harkaway - The Gone-Away World

One of the best books I've ever read, but one of the hardest to follow at times (if you can make it to the third page with some sense of what is going on you should be okay), this is set in a future where much of the world is simply not there - "gone-away" - as a result of a catastrophic war. The main characters are part of a disaster-response team charged with maintaining the pipeline that preserves what normal reality there is, and much of the book alternates between action in the present and explanations of how the world got that way. In addition to a complex plot, Harkaway has more fun with the English language than almost any living author - from his intricate classification scheme for pencilnecks to a startlingly vivid explanation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, this is prose to remember. "The tree of nonsense is watered with error, and from its branches swing the pumpkins of disaster."

Barry Hughart - The Chronicles of Master Li and Number 10 Ox

This is actually a compilation of three smaller books featuring the title characters and is almost impossible to find in bookstores, though most good-sized libraries seem to have it. Set in a version of ancient China where myths walk the earth, the deadpan Master Li and his earnest servant, Number 10 Ox, solve crimes, explore mysteries, and tangle with the gods. Master Li is what Sherlock Holmes would have been if he had had a sense of humor and a Confucian outlook.

James Hynes - The Lecturer's Tale

A razor-sharp satire of academic politics, this is the story of a down-and-out ad-hoc English professor at a third-tier university and what happens when he suddenly acquires the power to make people do what he wants simply by touching them. If you survived graduate school in the liberal arts any time in the last two decades, you will cringe with recognition as the power plays and literary theories work themselves out to their conclusions.

Russell Kirkpatrick - Across the Face of the World (aborted)

I really wanted to like this book. It had a great set-up, some interesting ideas, and I got it cheap so I felt all virtuous and savvy. But the writing was pedestrian, the characters were cardboard, and after one too many info-dumps it hit me that I wasn't going to be tested on it and didn't have to finish it if I didn't want to. And out the door it went. Great cover art, though.

Kevin Kling - The Dog Says How

I've liked Kevin Kling's stuff since I heard him on NPR describing his boy scout troop's disastrous foray into taxidermy (think squirrels with green visors), so when I saw this sitting on the library shelf I picked it up. It's a short collection of even shorter stories, but there are a few good ones and as I read them I could hear his thick Minnesota accent in my mind.

Sarah Lyall - The Anglo Files

One of my side interests is the long list of distinctions between Britain and its colonial offspring, the United States. I enjoyed Bill Bryson's books on the subject, for example, and one of my fonder airport memories is of a Penguin paperback on that theme that I read in an airport bookstore on a 6-hour layover. Sarah Lyall is an American living in Britain, a keen observer and a sharp-tongued writer, though after this book she may have had to move.

Jack Lynch - The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of "Proper" English from Shakespeare to South Park

I really liked this book, and I'm not just saying that because Jack and I were roommates for much of our undergraduate careers. The history of the English language is another of my side interests, and Jack does a great job of walking you through how the notion of "proper" English began and has evolved over time. The book is engagingly written and if you're not careful you might learn something. I for one will henceforth be less worried about where my prepositions end up.

Emma McLaughlin and Nichole Kraus - The Nanny Diaries

Another garage-sale book, this one details the adventures of a New York City nanny trying to take care of a little boy whose parents are too self-centered to live, let alone take care of a child. It had some funny bits, but as a parent it just aggravated me to read it - I wanted to reach into the book and smack those people, and this does detract from the reading experience somewhat.

China Mieville - Perdido Street Station; The Scar; Iron Council

China Mieville is a writer in the same vein as Joe Abercrombie in some ways - he writes fantasy novels set in complex, grim, dirty, weary places instead of the simple, shiny, stripped-down medieval world of most of the genre - but unlike him in others. You couldn't put any of the characters from one author into the other author's books without making them explode, for example. These novels are all set in the same world, a place vaguely like 19th-century Europe in that it is both grimily industrial and full of unexplained history. Its cities and countries are populated by a startling variety of creatures, most of them non-human, all thrown together side by side and trying to get through their days. Mieville is at his best when working within a complex and corrupt city that becomes a character in itself, which is why Perdido Street Station is by far the best of the lot, with sharply drawn characters and a crisis that almost literally defies comprehension. The others are worth the time as well, but the further he gets from the city of New Crobuzon, the weaker the stories become.

James Morrow - Shambling Towards Hiroshima

What if the atomic bomb wasn't the only secret weapon program in the US in WWII? This story purports to be the memoirs of an actor who was hired to portray the giant lizard under development by the US Navy as a counter to the bomb (developed by the Army) in the publicity films. It's a short, surprisingly angry book about the things people do to each other. I've read Morrow's other foray into this area, the heartbreakingly bleak This Is the Way the World Ends, so I wasn't surprised by that, but it does creep up on you.

Tom Perotta - The Abstinence Teacher

I read this early in the year and don't remember it all too well, though I remember it as being a decent story. It's basically small town politics, sex education and the Culture Wars, all thrown together to see what comes up to the surface.

Terry Pratchett - Nation; Unseen Academicals

These were actually two very different novels. Unseen Academicals is the latest in the Discworld series. For those of you unfamiliar with the Discworld, well, what is your problem? It started out as a pure slash and burn satire of fantasy, but some three dozen books later it has evolved into a fairly thoughtful (though no less satirical) series, full of odd British humor, sly references, and characters such as Death, who SPEAKS IN SMALL CAPS and likes people even if he doesn't quite get them. This latest installment centers on the Unseen University of the wizards, which somehow has to come up with a soccer team or lose its funding. It's a fun read - one of the better books in the series in terms of sheer amusement, though not one of the deeper ones. Nation is not a Discworld novel. Set on an unnamed island in an alternate Pacific Ocean, it is the story of two children from different cultures marooned after a tsunami wipes out an entire culture, and the way they choose to reconstitute society in the wake of this. Like all of Pratchett's later novels, it has a deeply humanistic streak.

Kim Stanley Robinson - Forty Signs of Rain; Fifty Degrees Below; Sixty Days and Counting

These books actually form a trilogy, though I don't think Robinson ever gave it a name. It's a political thriller about global climate change - how quickly it can happen, what the consequences are for the world, and what can be done about it. Robinson is an optimist - he generally assumes that people will do the right thing when they have no other option, which is not a position supported by much historical data and certainly not by current wingnut politics - but the characters are interesting and it does provide a fairly accurate portrayal of what is in store for us if we continue to be willfully ignorant about what we are doing to the planet.

John Scalzi - Agent to the Stars; The Last Colony; Zoe's Tale

Scalzi is one of my favorite writers, though not for his books - his blog "Whatever" is always worth reading, even if (and perhaps especially if) you disagree with what he is saying. These three books break down into two piles. The Last Colony and Zoe's Tale are part of his Old Man's War universe and tell more or less the same story - the first time from the perspective of one character, and the second time from another. I've always loved stuff like that - Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is one of my favorite plays - and Scalzi does a pretty good job of it here. Agent to the Stars, however, is its own story. The aliens have landed in Los Angeles and want to make contact, but they have a PR problem - they're ugly and they communicate by noxious smells (yes, there are fart jokes) - so they hire an agent. The book is both thoughtful and funny, and you can't beat that combination.

Brian Francis Slattery - Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six After the Collapse of the United States of America

One the one hand, this was a good story - the world economy has collapsed and out of the wreckage comes the Slick Six, with one more caper to pull. On the other hand, the writing is difficult to follow in a deliberately opaque sort of way and Slattery doesn't have the sense of humor that Nick Harkaway does. It is an interesting vision of a new and grimmer US, complete with slavery again, but you have to work for it.

Neal Stephenson - Anathem

Stephenson writes intricately textured, complex books that - in terms of words per dollar - provide phenomenal value for your reading pleasure. I first ran into him in his Baroque Cycle, a wonderful picaresque set in the 1600s in Europe and featuring princes, philosophers, whores, soldiers, and pirates and also providing a fairly good primer on the Scientific Revolution, the French and British politics of the age, and the rise of modern finance. This book is set on an Earth-like planet where a sort of monastic order devoted to mathematics is about to face its greatest crisis. Stephenson created this world down to the last adverb and includes a glossary in the back - it took me about a hundred pages to get the hang of his terminology, but the story was worth it for the deeply textured world alone. For a long book, it moved along quite well and was over before I was ready for it to be.

George Stewart - Earth Abides

I like apocalyptic fiction, if you haven't figured that out by now. After-the-bomb books, end-of-the-world books - they all appeal to me for reasons which would probably keep a good therapist employed for decades. This one is a classic of the genre, first published in 1948. A disease wipes out 99% of humanity in a matter of weeks, and the survivors put together a new society out of the materials left over. It's a gentle book, with no shocking violence or gore - just a meditative look at how societies rebuild. "Men go and come, but earth abides." (Ecclesiastes 1:4)

Charles Stross - The Laundry Cycle (The Atrocity Archives; The Jennifer Morgue)

What if demon-hunting was simply another bureaucratic job? That's the set-up for this series, and it gives Stross ample opportunity to display his finely-tuned British sarcasm and irony. "The Laundry" is a secret branch of British intelligence tasked with protecting the UK from the depredations of The Other Side and with protecting itself from the depredations of multi-layer bureaucratic infighting. The first book was better than the second, and a third is coming this year.

Robert M. Thorson - Stone by Stone

This book was actually sent to me by a friend - we had been discussing our mutual interest in things other people had no interest in, and she told me that she had just finished a great book on the history of the stone walls of New England. And this was it. You know, it really was interesting.

Ken Waldman - As the World Burns: The Sonnets of George W. Bush and Other Poems of the 43rd Presidency

I don't normally read poetry - either it rhymes and strikes me as silly, or it doesn't rhyme and strikes me as poorly typeset prose. But I met this guy at a conference in St. Paul this fall and we got to talking about his act - he plays fiddle and writes poetry, and I was at this conference scouting for acts to bring to Home Campus. He was really fascinating to talk to, and he loaded me down with books, CDs and other swag. This one is mostly direct quotes from our former Fearless Liter, arranged in poetic style. W never did make any sense when he spoke in prose, so translating it into poetry did him no harm. Waldman anticipated Conan O'Brien and William Shatner's treatment of Sarah Palin's speeches by over a year! All you need is bongos, a bass and some dark sunglasses.

Stephen Walker - Shockwave

Another in my atomic bomb book series, this one a minute-by-minute account of the bombings from many different perspectives. Again, some good stories for my class from a well written book.

Alan Weisman - The World Without Us

The setup for this book is better than the actual book. What would happen if, for some reason, human beings suddenly vanished? There wouldn't be any cataclysm - no war, no violent disaster to muck things up - just a simple disappearance of the entire human race, overnight. Weisman spends some time discussing how everything made slowly unmakes, but he spends a lot more time grinding his various environmental axes, and even though I sympathize with most of them it still made for a vaguely disappointing book.

Sean Wilentz - The Age of Reagan

Perhaps the best single-volume history of recent American politics and culture (far better than James Patterson's Restless Giant), Wilentz does a masterful job of describing how the United States has managed to screw itself up so badly over the last four decades. Ronald Reagan, the central figure in this narrative, gets credit for some things but overall his influence is clearly shown to be malign and the influence of those who worship him without understanding his complexities is even more so. Wilentz is a masterful historian, and those who would contradict his arguments have a steep hill to climb.

Garry Wills - Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State

This was actually an Advance Reader's Copy that I found in a bookstore in Dubuque - they had a whole shelf of various ARCs, and since they can't sell them they were giving them away, one to a customer. Wills argues that the growth of the imperial presidency since WWII can be traced to the development of the atomic bomb and the power that this represents, since that power has been given entirely to the president to wield. He doesn't really make this argument stick - for long periods it disappears entirely, and in other places it is just tacked on to other points - but as a primer on the unconstitutional expansion of executive power at the expense of both Congress and the courts over the last 65 years (what the Revolutionary Generation would have called "corruption" - a jargon term with a specific meaning back then), it is sobering. Wills is particularly critical of the inflated and frankly terrifying ideas on executive power put forth by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, whose wholesale pillaging of the Constitution will take generations to repair.

Malcolm X - The Autobiography of Malcolm X

I actually had to read this for a class I was teaching. I was not looking forward to it, but I was just awed at the power of Malcolm X's story. In particular, I was impressed not only by the strength of his convictions but also by how he was willing to revise those convictions in the face of contradictory evidence. American history became immediately poorer when he was assassinated, and it is an interesting thing to consider how he would have continued to grow and influence events had he lived.


Total Books: 48
Total Pages: 19,114
Pages/Day: 52.4

2 comments:

beatricemdfr said...

My god, that's almost a book a week. Do you read in your sleep?

David said...

It's a handy talent that you pick up in graduate school. :)

Actually, I read instead of sleep. That's another handy talent you pick up in graduate school.