Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Books Read in 2010 - Part 1

I read. It’s what I do.

And since I started this blog, I’ve been trying to keep track of the books I’ve read – mostly, it must be said, for my own enjoyment, as I’m not entirely sure who else will get anything out of these lists. Some blog posts are for the benefit of specific others, some are for general consumption, and some are just because it’s my blog and I can write what I want.

Although someone must be getting something out of this sort of thing, since the 2009 post is consistently among the most viewed of any I’ve done.

I find it odd to see what I’ve read, really. I am at a point in my life where I no longer have to read anything as assigned work, and it’s fun just to look back and see where my interests have taken me.

They take me to some weird places, when you get right down to it.

Last year I organized things into one long post, but this year that won’t work. So I’m breaking it up into manageable chunks, though your definition of manageable may differ from mine. I haven’t counted magazines, internet articles or newspapers – just books. Books are good.

So here is part one of 2010’s reading list, in order, because that’s just the kind of guy I am.


Look at the Birdie (Kurt Vonnegut)

A collection of previously unpublished Vonnegut stories, most of them fairly short and uncharacteristically upbeat until you get to the later few, where his trademark pessimism begins to emerge. Some good ones, but mostly for enthusiasts.

Shades of Grey (Jasper Fforde)

What if your place in the world was determined by how much color you could see? If you could only see one or two colors? If society itself was arranged according to a Colortocracy? Fforde's newest book is a departure from his Thursday Next and Nursery Crimes series, but one full of imagination, humor and heartbreak. Edward Russett, son of a swatchman (the closest this society has to a doctor) is sent to the hinterlands to learn some humility. Thanks to Jane, a resourceful and angry Grey, he learns a lot of things, including some that the higher-ups don't want him to learn, although humility really isn't one of them. First of a trilogy.

The Gone-Away World (Nick Harkaway)

I liked this one so much I read it again. After a catastrophic war in which much of reality Goes Away, a team of adventurers is sent off on one last mission, one that goes both wrong and right. Much of the book is the story of how we get to the first chapter - a tale of school days, ninjas, revolution, sex and soldiering told in some of the most hilariously hallucinatory language ever put down on paper. One of my favorite books.

Ellie McDoodle: Have Pen, Will Travel (Ruth McNally Barshaw)

This is a YA book that Tabitha liked and said I should read, so I did. It's a combination of text and cartoonish drawings that together tell a lively little story about an 11-year-old girl sentenced to go camping with her cousins for a week. Nothing deep or life-altering, but well-suited for its intended audience and a pleasant book to read. Yes, there's a sequel. No, I haven’t read it.

The Company (K.J. Parker)

KJ Parker is an astonishingly good writer with an equally astonishingly bleak view of human nature. She (the name is a pseudonym, but somewhere I caught a pronoun that makes me think it's a she) writes intricately plotted and often fairly technical novels - she delves deeply into such things as social structure, military tactics and the details of making armor, swords or bows - that pull you in and keep you there. This is her tenth published book and the first that isn't part of a trilogy. A-Company, legendary figures in the late war but long since retired to disappointing lives, gathers together on an island to start new lives. Hilarity does not ensue. Well written and stark.

The American Book of the Dead (Stephen Billias)

One of the stranger "after the bomb" books out there, in that the actual nuclear war is only minimally described and mostly from the perspective of one of the missiles, this is a book that feels like it started out longer but was edited by someone with a deep sense of the absurd. Bertie Rupp suffers from a severe fear of nuclear annihilation, and the book follows his quest for a copy of The American Book of the Dead - a half-Tibetan, half-Madison Avenue compendium of slogans - while the world goes insane around him.

Looking for Jake (China Mieville)

China Mieville is one seriously twisted but eminently entertaining writer - a sort of Poe/Lovecraft/Orwell hybrid whose gritty, oddly realistic stories are set in worlds so unreal that aspects of them almost literally defy comprehension. This is a collection of short stories, most of them on the eerie to bizarre side and few with any real closure. One is set in the world of Perdido Street Station, but the rest stand alone, and all are unsettling, vivid, and thought-provoking.

The Death of Conservatism (Sam Tanenhaus)

This book is part of my ongoing project to understand the roots and trajectory of the American conservative movement as it is expressed today - to figure out where those cockroaches come from and what they are likely to do to me and mine, in other words. Tanenhaus does a very good job of showing how American conservatism is split between revanchists - "movement conservatives" focused on ideological purity, authoritarianism and oppositional spirit - and realists in the mold of Burke or Disraeli who seek to preserve social institutions while recognizing the need to make compromises and actually govern responsibly, and has been so split since the New Deal. In the years since 1968 the revanchists have won - they reached their peak with George W. Bush in 2001-2008 - and Tanenhaus argues this victory marks the death of American conservatism as a meaningful (as opposed to powerful) political entity. A sobering and infuriating look at the people who have screwed up this country so badly over the last half century and who continue to insist that their errors are your fault.

Odd and the Frost Giants (Neil Gaiman)

A charming and whimsical tale of a boy who is called upon by the Norse gods to defeat the Frost Giants and reclaim Asgard. There isn't a whole lot of suspense to it, except possibly for the how of it, but it is well told and offers a different take on the mythology.

Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party (Max Blumenthal)

An infuriatingly specific account of the venal, corrupt, theocratic, savage and autocratic leaders of the modern conservative movement in America, and one that details just how unAmerican these people are. They have no respect for the Constitution, no respect for American history and no respect for anyone or anything that doesn't conform to their narrow, bastardized version of Christianity - a version that they seek to inflict on the rest of us with all possible speed. Blumenthal has spoken with these people, attended their events, and read their writings, and he lets them horrify you in their own words. Blumenthal frames much of this with the theories of Erich Fromm, so you can take that for what it's worth. This was a book I could only read in 30pp-increments before having to take a break, otherwise I'd just end up yelling.

Scar Night (Alan Campbell)

In a city suspended by chains over an abyss, where pilgrims come to die and angels go insane, the official poisoner of the church seeks vengeance and the last of the temple angels, protected by an assassin, stands in his way. A dark, complex story where the villains and heroes are not as clear cut as they may appear. It may be significant that I started this book as a sanity break from the previous one.

Iron Angel (Alan Campbell)

The followup to Scar Night and the second volume of the Deepgate Codex, this story expands on the world described in the first book, and we discover that the struggles of Scar Night were mere opening skirmishes in a much larger, much older war between gods, angels and demons. Campbell delights in metaphysics, and his conception of Hell as a place where souls are mere raw materials, his willingness to do unspeakable things to major characters, and his vivid writing make for a dark and compelling story.

King Lear (William Shakespeare)

Shakespeare is a monument to the fact that the English language has changed dramatically in the last four hundred years, and trying to make sense of this by reading it is probably more of a task than I should have undertaken in a week when I was sick and not thinking clearly. But I wanted to read Fool (see below) and I figured I should read the original first - and despite being somewhat overeducated, even to the point of taking an entire semester of Shakespeare in high school, this was one play I'd never read. It's Lear. What else can I say?

Fool (Christopher Moore)

A typical Christopher Moore novel - perhaps more vulgar than his usual fare, but not inappropriately so. This is Moore's take on Lear, and it is laugh-out-loud funny. Told from the perspective of the Fool, naturally enough, it has Moore's trademark snappy dialogue and absurdist humor, and it follows the play from a safe distance - not quite an exact march through Shakespeare, but close enough to keep within hailing distance.

God of Clocks (Alan Campbell)

The third and concluding volume of the Deepgate Codex, and very much of a piece with the other two. A few loose ends left hanging and an ending that ties things together rather abruptly, but it carries you along for a dark and enjoyable ride through some mind-bending stuff. Well worth the time.

The Folding Knife (KJ Parker)

A typical novel from Parker in many ways – very well written, intricately plotted, bleakly realistic despite the fantastic setting, with carefully drawn characters headed inevitably for disaster. The suspense isn’t whether the characters will find a bad end in Parker’s books, but how. Basso, First Citizen of the Vesani Republic, is a man whose efforts to enrich himself almost invariably lead to the betterment of the Republic and its citizens as well. But family vengeance dogs him, and step by step it all falls apart. Parker’s novels are well worth the time, but not light reading.

The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard (J. G. Ballard)

Ballard was one of the leading SF writers of the mid-late 20th century, even if some of his fans find that description irritating for some reason. He branched out from that genre - certainly there are stories in this collection that don't fit - but the overall impression these stories give is definitely one of science fiction. And of the mid-20th-century middle class, with all of their concerns and worries. Ballard's stories are dystopian and generally quiet, set-piece psychological studies of humans in extenuating circumstances. They're good, but they're not 1200 pages good, and this collection perhaps would have been better sampled over time instead of read straight through.

Armageddon in Retrospect (Kurt Vonnegut)

A collection of previously unpublished short works by Kurt Vonnegut, one of the greatest American writers of all time. These are typical of his style - spare, pessimistic, and well done. Even a slight Vonnegut collection is better than most other people's best works.

The Lightning Thief (Rick Riordan)

Volume One of Percy Jackson and the Olympians, this one Tabitha was eager for me to read. And you know, it's really good. Riordan has a great deal of fun playing with the mythological archetypes of ancient Greece and he's got a good sense of humor about it as well - the chapter headings alone are worth the price of admission ("Chapter 2: Three Old Ladies Knit the Socks of Death"). The movie took a great many liberties with the book, so even if you've seen it, the book is still worth reading.

The Sea of Monsters (Rick Riordan)

Volume Two of Percy Jackson and the Olympians, this time with the demigods Percy and Annabeth and the satyr Grover joined in their quest by Tyson, an orphan cyclops, and Clarisse, another demigod ("half-blood") who generally hates them. Fast moving, nicely plotted, and full of the same deadpan humor as the first book (and similar chapter headings - "Chapter 3: We Hail the Taxi of Eternal Torment"), it moves you nicely along toward the next volume.

The Titan's Curse (Rick Riordan)

Volume Three of Percy Jackson finds our hero racing across the country to save his friend Annabeth and the goddess Artemis, even as he struggles to keep the people with him alive. Best chapter title of this volume: "Chapter 7: Everybody Hates Me But The Horse."

The Battle of the Labyrinth (Rick Riordan)

Volume Four of Percy Jackson is a bit more thoughtful than the previous ones, with the main characters dealing with jealousy, anger and the consequences of death in ways that they hadn't before. But the series retains its playful deadpan romp through both ancient Greek mythology and modern American culture despite that, and the chapter headings remain fun ("Chapter 5: Nico Buys Happy Meals For The Dead").

The Last Olympian (Rick Riordan)

The Percy Jackson series ends with a bang as Percy and the other demigods fight to save Olympus from destruction. Riordan continues to make the series deeper, darker and more thoughtful even as his humor remains playful ("Chapter 5: I Drive My Dog Into A Tree"). Love, loyalty, death, honor, vengeance and forgiveness all converge in a last epic battle - one that takes up most of the book and stays surprisingly fresh throughout. The minor characters sparkle.

Kitchen Confidential (Anthony Bourdain)

My second time through this book, and it was worth it. Bourdain’s gritty, profane, hilariously funny tour through the world of the professional chef is a masterpiece of the memoirist’s art. I can see why they gave him his own TV show after this – he has a distinctive voice. It’s a voice soaked in alcohol, f-bombs, drugs and vitriolic cynicism, but one that somehow manages to hold your attention and earn your respect anyway.

Purple and Black (KJ Parker)

An epistolary novella about friendship, betrayal and politics by one of the masters of all three. A new emperor, thrust unwillingly onto the throne by a disastrous civil war, sends his best friend to govern a far-flung province in rebellion, and as with all of Parker’s works, things are not simple nor do they end well - you know that going in, and the treat of Parker's writing is to see the precise ways in which things don't end well and the crisply written descriptions of how they go wrong.

Mercury Falls (Robert Kroese)

The Apocalypse is upon us, and it is a bureaucratic mess, full of infighting between Heaven, Hell, and an assortment of renegade factions that would make Italian politics look straightforward. Christine, a reporter for a Christian newsmagazine, Mercury, an AWOL angel, and Karl, a pathetic loser recently nominated as the Antichrist in a contest, have to make sense of it all before things fall apart forever. If you liked Good Omens (Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman), you'll like this one, and largely for the same reasons - quick wit, ridiculous situations, and a fresh take on an old theme, this was a fun book.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Demigod Files (Rick Riordan)

A collection of short stories and miscellanea connected to the Percy Jackson series. The three short stories are entertaining and do fill in a gap or two in the larger books. There are also a couple of "interviews" with the characters, some color plates of what Riordan felt the characters ought to look like (not very close to the movie versions), and assorted other things. Slight, but still fun.

The Nasty Bits (Anthony Bourdain)

A collection of articles and short pieces written for magazines and assorted other outlets, this is a fun if not particularly deep read. There's even a bit of fiction at the end. Bourdain is his usual self - curmudgeonly, obsessed with food, and at pains to present himself as edgy before puncturing his own self-created myth. A nice follow-up to Kitchen Confidential.

The Wordy Shipmates (Sarah Vowell)

I first heard Sarah Vowell on the NPR show This American Life, and her gently mordant sense of humor just struck a chord with me, as did her obvious (and obviously slightly embarrassing to her) love of American history. I’ve since read most of her books, and this is the latest. It’s her take on the Puritans, whom she finds both endearing and exasperating, often for the same reasons. She gets the history right, but that’s not the main point – this is about Sarah Vowell and what she takes from that history, and if that isn’t what we academic historians are trained to write about, it is certainly something worth reading anyway.

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