I’m one of those people who will read the sugar packets on the restaurant table if I don’t have a book with me. I read magazines. I read web sites. I occasionally read tea leaves, but all they ever tell me is “you need another cup of tea because this one is finished.”
But mostly I read books.
And since I started this blog I have kept track of the things I’ve read. It’s interesting to go back and look at where I’ve been all year, in a literary sense.
This was the year I read my first e-books, an experience I have no particular interest in replicating. I find e-readers clumsy, hard to use, and generally an impediment to the reading process. On the plus side, they’re easy to hand back to their owners.
This was the year I finally picked up Don Quixote, after decades of intending to do so. Let’s just say that humor doesn’t really translate well across time and culture and leave it at that.
And this was the year I decided to read all of the Discworld novels again, in order, because they are well written, and because they make me laugh and think at the same time – a difficult combination, and one I appreciate more and more as I get older. Also, because the current condition of the United States as it tumbles purposefully toward its far-right-wing self-immolation is so freakishly appalling that it is nice to find a refuge in a world that makes some kind of sense.
You can do worse than spend some time in the Discworld.
So here is the first installment of this year’s reading. Enjoy.
Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) [and] Three Men on the Bummel (Jerome K. Jerome)
Continuing where I left off in 2011 with the rolling cadences of 19th century humor, these two books (here collected in a single volume) describe the adventures of three English gentlemen on a rowboat trip down the Thames and a bicycling/walking “bummel” or wandering trip through the Black Forest in Germany. Jerome writes as both a sharp observer and a mystified innocent, and there are some very funny bits in here. He is especially good when contrasting the high expectations of his travelers with the realities of the road as they existed over a century ago. The scholarly introduction and end notes provided by this edition are useless, however.
And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life (Charles J. Shields)
Kurt Vonnegut was not a guy you’d really want to hang out with, according to this new and exhaustively documented biography. Short-tempered, self-centered, and generally eager to keep people at arm’s length, he nevertheless never seemed to lack for company. This book charts his life from his childhood in Indianapolis through his WWII service, his years as a struggling writer, and finally his success and decline. Shields paints an unflattering but sympathetic portrait of his subject, not glossing over his flaws but balancing them with virtues and suffering. If there is a villain at all in this telling it is Jill Krementz, Vonnegut’s second wife, who comes across as a control freak and a harridan who made Vonnegut’s last years far less than they should have been. Shields packs a phenomenal amount of information into this – I did not realize that John Irving had been a student of Vonnegut’s at Iowa, nor that Vonnegut had been Geraldo Rivera’s father in law – but it does not really make for cheerful reading.
The Dirty Parts of the Bible (Sam Torode)
Tobias lives with his hellfire-and-damnation Baptist preacher father and his mother in tiny little Remus, Michigan, in the midst of the Great Depression. Skeptical of all that, as teenagers are, he dreams of a wider world and wonders what his place in it will be, particularly as concerns the mysterious charms of women. When he is sent on a mission to his uncle’s farm in Texas, his misadventures include a miserable night in a whorehouse, an education jumping trains with a hobo named Craw, and – ultimately – a cursed girl named Sarah. This surprisingly gentle and touching story is told with brio and love, and manages to be funny, sad, hopeful and wise all in turns and all at once.
The Name of the Wind (Patrick Rothfuss)
Kote is an innkeeper in a tiny little village miles from anything important. But when the Chronicler convinces him to tell his life story, it turns out he was once known as Kvothe – a man about whom legends are told. How does a hero get to be that way? What is the human story behind it? It is a tale of hardship and horror, of friendship and love, of looking back in wonder and sadness over a life both outsized and deeply personal. This is a darkly lyrical book and one of my all-time favorites.
The Wise Man’s Fear (Patrick Rothfuss)
Sometimes a writer is so good at fleshing out his characters and making you care about them that it becomes hard to read about the sufferings and missteps they go through, and Rothfuss is that kind of writer. Kvothe continues telling his story to the Chronicler here – his time at the University, his service to the Maer, his music, his heartbreakingly oblique dance of love with Denna, his time with the Adem – even as that story seems to be converging on his present life as the innkeeper. You feel for Kvothe even as you know that so many of his problems are self-inflicted and that he has survived them long enough to tell this tale. But there is an air of resignation, of hard times and choices lived and paid for, of debts coming due and stories tying together to a conclusion, an air that makes this a book not easily put down or forgotten.
Farthing (Jo Walton)
On the surface, this is a murder mystery – one of those locked-room mysteries that the British seem to specialize in. Sir James Thirkie has been murdered at a gathering of the Farthing Set – so named after the estate where this happens – and it is up to Inspector Carmichael and Sergeant Royster of Scotland Yard to figure out which of the guests did him in. Underneath, though, this is an astonishingly bleak political novel. The Britain of 1949 where this novel is set is not the one we know, and Sir James was the man who negotiated an end to World War II in 1941, leaving the Continent in Nazi hands and Hitler free to focus on the Soviet Union. The central question of the novel, really, is whether Fascism can be contained at a border, or whether it will creep slowly through and establish itself even in a nation that prides itself so much on its liberties as Britain. Reading this novel in the post-9/11 US is a troubling exercise, but a worthwhile one.
Ha’penny (Jo Walton)
Where Farthing wrapped its politics around a murder mystery, Ha’penny wraps its around a thriller. It’s not long after the events of Farthing. Mark Normanby of the Farthing Set is now Prime Minister and rapidly moving the UK into its own Fascist state to match the victorious Nazi regime on the Continent. Viola Lark is the sister of Daphne Normanby (a minor character in Farthing) and a stage actress cast to play a cross-gendered version of Hamlet. When one of the other actresses in the play dies in a suspicious explosion, Inspector Carmichael and Sergeant Royster begin to investigate. Ultimately the book revolves around Viola ensnared in a plot to assassinate Hitler and Normanby when they attend her play and Carmichael doggedly pursuing the links between the first explosion and the one upcoming. Walton puts her characters through genuine ordeals – moral and physical – before all is concluded, and the book tells a fascinating, if disturbingly relevant, story.
Half a Crown (Jo Walton)
It’s a dozen years later, and Watch Commander Carmichael has to keep an eye on his adopted “niece” Elvira while he struggles to subvert the Fascist government of Mark Normanby’s England. A peace conference between the three major powers of the world – England, Nazi Germany, and Japan – is scheduled in London and Elvira is to be presented to the Queen as a debutante. These two plots twirl and twine around each other in surprising ways until the very last chapter, when perhaps things have been resolved. Walton certainly suggests so – she flatly declares in the preface that this is her last book in a series she calls “Still Life With Fascists.” Thought-provoking and interesting but not as intense or gripping as the first two, particularly with the rather tacked on ending.
The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning (Hallgrimur Helgason)
Tomislav Boksic – “Toxic” to his associates in the Croatian mafia in New York City – is a professional hitman and a good one. But when one of his targets turns out to be an FBI agent, he is forced to flee the country, and when things go wrong at the airport he ends up on a plane to Iceland posing as a televangelist. From there it gets weird. Toxic is an engaging character for a man who can’t remember quite how many people he’s killed, and he narrates a fairly unvarnished and occasionally laugh-out-loud history of his life, from serving as a soldier in the brutal wars that broke up Yugoslavia in the 1990s to detailing his murders as a hitman and his conquests as a lover (he rates the attractiveness of women by how many days it would take him to go after her if she were the only female member of his platoon. Thus some women are, for example, “Day 4 types.”). In Iceland he finds a strange sort of love, an even stranger form of repentance and peace, and an end that the author leaves rather vague. An odd book, but an interesting one.
The Candymakers (Wendy Mass)
This was a bedtime book that Lauren and I read together. Logan Sweet is the son of the Candymaker, the owner of the LIFE IS SWEET candy factory. He’s also competing in the annual candy contest. Three other 12-year-olds – Daisy, Miles and Philip – come to the factory to make their candy, and the four will eventually take their creations to the central contest to join other contestants. Except that it isn’t that simple. Each kid has a past, and the first four parts of the novel are essentially the same story told from each of their points of view – Rashomon meets Willie Wonka. As with all stories like this, every layer changes how you see the whole, and when the four eventually have to work together – as you know they must – the story changes even further. A sweet and remarkably textured coming-of-age YA novel, with interesting characters who make you want to know them better.
Embassytown (China Mieville)
China Mieville is almost singlehandedly keeping the Novel Of Ideas alive, and he’s doing it in the SF/F genre. This is a complex, densely written meditation on the nature and power of language, set on a planet at the very limits of human-explored space. Humans – “Terre” – live in a small settlement called Embassytown, among a larger city of resident life forms called Hosts. The Ariekene speak a language – Language – unlike any other in the universe, one that requires two simultaneous utterances that have sentience behind them, and one that only a few altered and highly trained humans can speak in such a way as to be understood by the Ariekene. The Ariekene are truly alien – most authors have alien characters who are little more than humans in funny bodies, but Mieville knows how to write Other in a way that is almost incomprehensibly different. Into this situation comes Avice Benner Cho – a living simile in Language (and it's probably not an accident that her initials are "ABC") - and her husband Scile, who wants the Ariekene to learn how to lie. For in Language, everything is a truth claim; words do not signify but are. Mieville spends most of this difficult but rewarding novel exploring that gap and what happens to alien minds when it is bridged.
The Campus Trilogy (David Lodge)
This is actually a collected edition of three books that Lodge published over several years, all centered on the lives of an international set of English professors.
In the first book, Changing Places, it is 1969. Philip Swallow – a middlingly competent faculty member at the backwater university in Rummidge (a stand-in for Birmingham) is going to the US on a faculty exchange with Euphoria State University (clearly in San Francisco). In return, Rummidge gets Morris Zapp, a rising lit-crit superstar. Swallow is a quintessential Englishman – retiring, unfailingly polite, quietly desperate – while Zapp is abrasive, cerebral, self-centered and ambitious and fits every stereotype of the querulous academic. Their wives, children, students and careers get hopelessly muddled together over the course of this often quite funny book, as campus and sexual tensions run high and comedy reaches low.
Ten years later, in Small World, Swallow (still much the same) and Zapp (mellowed into maturity and, surprisingly, sympathy) meet again at a conference at Rummidge, along with Persse McGarrigle and a mysterious attendee named Angelica. The book is mostly about Persse’s international pursuit of Angelica, which takes any number of twists and turns through the world of academic conferences and where he continually runs into Zapp, Swallow, and a few others. There’s a subplot involving a UNESCO chair for literary criticism that takes up a fair amount of room and adds very little, and the ending is a rushed tying up of loose ends that takes away from the book as a whole, but it’s still funny and worth reading.
Seven years later, in 1986, Lodge returns to Rummidge, this time to set up an ongoing business/university outreach program that throws Vic Wilcox (hard-charging corporate executive) together with Robyn Penrose (feminist, deconstructionist, literary theory professor). Sparks naturally ensue. Nice Work is a more geographically focused book than the others, leaving Rummidge only occasionally, and it is a much more serious book than the first two with its focus on the effects of the severe cuts to British higher education made in the 1980s. Philip Swallow appears as a minor character, and Morris Zapp is relegated to a one-chapter plot device. Lodge writes well and entertainingly despite his weakness for rushed endings that tie things up neatly in a bow.
How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III (Ron Rosenbaum)
This could have been an interesting book about one of the more pressing – and, in our terrorism-obsessed security climate these days, forgotten – international problems of our day, the possibility of outright nuclear war in a multi-polar world where nuclear weapons are being developed by a wide array of unstable and aggressive nations. It could have been, but it wasn’t – Rosenbaum is quite possibly the worst writer I’ve ever read to whom I did not have to assign a final grade. Anecdotes and quotes are repeated verbatim, occasionally within paragraphs of each other. Vast quantities of poorly constructed sentence fragments impede whatever message he tries to impart. And he never quite figures out if he wants to write about how easily nuclear war could happen even now, how close we came during the Cold War, how much Iran and Israel really, really want to annihilate each other these days, or how he thinks this problem may – or, in the last analysis, may not – be amenable to solution. This is a book that demonstrates the absolute need for editors at every level, and one that utterly fails to deliver on a promising idea.
Directive 51 (John Barnes)
When technological civilization dies of what is, essentially, meme poisoning, what happens to the government of the United States? This is the big question involved in this post-apocalyptic political thriller, set in 2024 (probably – Barnes gives conflicting dates sometimes, but most of them point to that date). “Daybreak” is the codename for an inchoate, self-reinforcing Internet meme that encourages the disaffected and the technologically savvy to create nano-bots and biotes designed to destroy plastics, rubber, circuitry and other fundamental building blocks of technological society. The story follows any number of characters on both sides of the Daybreak divide, many of whom do not survive to the end. It’s the story of a political system under stress, and a new world that may or may not rise out of it.
Daybreak Zero (John Barnes)
The fact that civilization has largely come to an end doesn’t mean that politics has also. A year after Daybreak and some months after Directive 51 closes, the main players are still in action. In Olympia, WA, the Provisional National Government claims to rule the old United States, while in Athens, GA, the Temporary National Government does as well. Caught between them is the organization at Pueblo, CO, trying to understand and counter Daybreak and play a neutral third party in the effort to restore Constitutional government. Throw in the increasingly devastating tribal raids coming out of the Lost Quarter (the northeast quarter of the old US, all the way out to Indiana) and the increasingly truculent fortified Castles dotting the landscape, and it is an intriguer’s dreamland. This book clearly ends in the middle of a longer story, so the next Daybreak book can’t be too far behind.
Memoirs of a Spy: Adventures Along the Eastern Fronts (Nicholas Snowden)
Miklos Soltasz – or Nicolas Soltys, take your pick – began his career in espionage serving the Austro-Hungarian Empire during WWI, and ended it serving the new Czechoslovakian Republic that emerged out of the wreckage of that empire following the war. In a relatively deadpan tone and with a newly Anglicized name, Snowden describes how he came into the service, his exploits on the Eastern Front and inside Russia, and his conflicts with the Hungarians after the war. Frankly, it’s astonishing to me how the man could hear himself think over the din of his huge clanking brass balls. He infiltrated a besieged fortress through Russian lines twice before it fell, returning safely to his own side each time. He allowed himself to be captured by the Russians and transported to Rostov-on-Don, where he escaped, set up his own spy network, and watched the Russian Revolution first hand. He spied throughout Hungary during its Socialist and Fascist regimes immediately following WWI, was ultimately captured, and came within a single government report of being executed. This memoir, written in 1933 and thus innocent of the knowledge of WWII, deserves to be better known.
Therapy (David Lodge)
I didn’t hold much hope for this book when I got it – I saw it at a library sale, recognized the author as the same guy who wrote Changing Places, and figured for fifty cents I’d give it a shot. But it turned out to be a marvelously heartfelt, comic and melancholy story about one man’s midlife crisis and how ends and beginnings get tangled together. Laurence “Tubby” Passmore is the scriptwriter for one of the hottest comedies on British television. Affluent beyond his needs, beset by a mysterious ache he refers to as “Internal Derangement of the Knee,” idly coursing through any number of different therapies, and slowly developing an odd fascination for Kierkegaard, he suddenly finds his life turned upside down. Lodge tells most of the story as Passmore’s journal entries, though the middle section is a collection of set-pieces told by other characters about Passmore’s crisis and much of the final section is a long reminiscence of young love. Melancholy, hopeful, funny, comic in the theatrical sense, thoughtful and surprisingly touching at times, this is an unexpectedly rich and compelling story.
Sacre Bleu (Christopher Moore)
This is a novel about the color blue. And about the French Impressionists of the late 19th century, many of whom are major characters. And about the price one pays for art. And, ultimately, about love and what it can and cannot do. It’s an odd book for Moore, with a strongly magical realist feel to it, but still full of his usual laugh-out-loud writing (someday I will have to work the phrase “better than a bear on a bicycle eating a nun!” into a conversation). One of his best, though – up there with Lamb and Fool.
The Poems of Brian Andreas (Brian Andreas)
These are actually seven short books, none of which are enough to count on their own – with one or two poems per page and about forty words per poem, they fly right by – but together I figure they are enough to fit. I’ve enjoyed Andreas’ work since I stumbled across it by accident in a joyfully cheesy little shop in Galena IL in the mid-1990s, partly because he accompanies his poems with exuberant illustrations and partly because his poems don’t really take themselves all that seriously. They’re more like snippets of thoughts, prose portraits of moments in time, and I like that. He’s got a wry and humanistic take on things that suits me. For example:
I try to useAnd one of my favorites:
in small amounts,
she said, so people
really appreciate it.
The rest of the time
I just try not to yell.
When I told himThe books are: Mostly True; Still Mostly True; Going Somewhere Soon; Strange Dreams; Hearing Voices; Trusting Soul; and Traveling Light.
I had a major in
English, he said
too bad for you
this is AMERICA
then & he started
me out at the