Thursday, December 30, 2010

Books Read in 2010 - Part 2

This is part two of 2010’s reading list.

Because there is always a part two.

Part three and last tomorrow.


Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers (Brooke Allen)

A short, pointed book that seeks to provide a necessary corrective to the theocratical nonsense that passes for right wing political propaganda today. The United States is not a “Christian nation.” It was not founded on Christian theology. Most of the Founding Fathers were not, by modern evangelical standards, even Christian at all. Allen does a nice job of using the words of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, George Washington and Alexander Hamilton to demonstrate this fact, obvious to those of us who know the period but apparently quite a surprise to most modern Americans.

What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Daniel Walker Howe)

Part of the Oxford History of the United States, this covers the tumultuous period between the War of 1812 and the Mexican War as Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay and a host of others transform the US from a world recognizable to its Founding Fathers into one more recognizable to us over these three and a half decades. Howe does a masterful job of synthesizing available research and making it readable and enjoyable. Every volume in this series is worth the time to read. The Oxford History of the United States is the best general overview of American history out there. If you want a thorough introduction to any period of US history you need look no further than the relevant volume.

The Graveyard Book (Neil Gaiman)

Escaping a murderer, a toddler is taken in by the spirits of a graveyard, a motley and often fractious collection of ghosts, witches, vampires (though never explicitly labeled as such) and others. Nobody Owens ("Bod" for short) learns about the world of the living and the dead, and ultimately must face the man who killed his family and threatens his only living friend. This is an unexpectedly sweet story of love, friendship and growing up, and it makes you wish for more.

Land of Lincoln (Andrew Ferguson)

One man's quest to find Abraham Lincoln in modern America. Ferguson travels around the country looking for Lincoln in all his modern manifestations and pondering what it all means. From an opening chapter on Lincoln haters in Richmond to a long discussion of the new Lincoln museum in Springfield, Ferguson discovers that Lincoln remains a fixture in American culture.

And Another Thing (Eoin Colfer)

The sixth in the increasingly inaccurately named Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy, and the first written by someone other than Douglas Adams, who died a number of years back. Colfer has a decent sense of the feel of the series and is a good writer, so this was worth reading - there are some funny bits scattered here and there, as one would expect from the author of the Artemis Fowl series - but it does feel a bit odd anyway.

The Invention of Air: A Story of Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America (Steven Johnson)

A lightweight intellectual history of Joseph Priestley, one of the most influential scientists of the eighteenth century and a figure who had profound influence on the more intellectual of the Founding Fathers (Franklin, Jefferson and Adams, especially). Johnson makes an interesting argument, slotting Priestly into not only his own time but ours and deep history's as well, and the book is well worth the time, but it is breezy and aimed at a popular rather than scholarly audience.

The Age of Misrule: World’s End (Mark Chadbourn)

The gods of Celtic mythology – all of them, the good and the bad – are returning to earth. Technology is failing, the Age of Reason is over, and magic stalks Britain once more. Five people – and a sixth, who is both more and less than he seems – are set the task of keeping the dark gods from triumphing. They face two problems. First, “dysfunctional” doesn’t even begin to describe their relationships with each other. And second, when it comes to gods, “good” and “evil” are not really relevant concepts. Dark, full of action and suspense, and engaging, though occasionally grating.

The Age of Misrule: Darkest Hour (Mark Chadbourn)

Volume two of our story finds our heroes in ever-more-dangerous situations, as victories against gods so alien as to defy human comprehension turn to ashes. The group finds deep companionship but remains as dysfunctional as ever. The writing occasionally drifts into long infodumps, but the story remains compelling.

I’ll Mature When I’m Dead (Dave Barry)

A new collection of Dave Barry’s typically funny pieces, covering most of the familiar ground. If you’ve ever read any Dave Barry collections, you know pretty much what to expect here – quick, funny, and light. A nice break from the Age of Misrule, really.

American on Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot (Craig Ferguson)

Craig Ferguson is a very funny man with a deep self-destructive streak, both qualities being on display in this memoir. He grows up outside of Glasgow and becomes an entertainer and an alcoholic, and from there he continues until he’s the best host on late-night television and an American citizen. Bluntly honest and wryly funny, it makes me want to watch his show more often.

The Age of Misrule: Always Forever (Mark Chadbourn)

The third and concluding volume of this series, wherein Chadbourn continues to put his characters through much grief and spends a great deal of time telling instead of showing. But the story remains interesting, as the Dysfunctional Five navigate the treacherous paths of alliances with gods and confront the source of their problems in the final battle. Chadbourn's message is not subtle (technology, reason, modernity = bad; nature, emotion, tradition = good; all is possible by wishing), but he hangs an entertaining series on it and leaves obvious room for the next series.

Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture (Naomi Cahn and June Carbone)

An intriguing argument trying to connect family norms, political stances and economic trends, this book starts with the position that there is a “blue family” norm (older parents, fewer and later kids, high stress on education, based on equality and commitment – two virtues that can be embodied by a variety of types of individuals to form a wide variety of families) that tends to be found in “blue” areas of the political map (the Northeast, the Upper Midwest, the West Coast, urban areas and college towns), and that this can be contrasted with a “red family” norm (younger parents, more kids earlier, less educated, based on the conflation of marriage, sex and procreation and therefore limited to traditional heterosexual monogamous unions) found in “red” political areas (the South and Southwest, the Plains, and rural areas). Viewed through this lens, the authors then stake out interesting positions on contraception, abortion, divorce, and other areas of family law. The writing is typical dry academian, but the ideas are interesting, particularly their connections to the economic shifts that have occurred between 1960 and 2010. Blue families tend to be the winners in the new information economy; red families tend to be the losers. The Culture Wars follow from there.

Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America (Robert Charles Wilson)

In the years following the Efflorescence of Oil, the slowly reviving United States controls most of the Americas and is embroiled in a drawn-out war with “Dutch” (or “Mitteleuropan”) forces for control of the Northwest Passage despite reverting mostly to a 19th-century level of technology. The President in New York City has to work with an aristocratic Senate, two nearly independent Armies, and a religious establishment (the Dominion) that largely controls the country from its base in Colorado Springs. Into this steps Julian Comstock – skeptic, aesthete, history buff, born soldier and commander of men, and nephew of the President who murdered his father – and his sidekick Adam Hazzard, a sturdy if naive peasant who becomes his friend, companion, and, in this book, biographer. Engaging, action-packed, often dryly humorous, elegiac and tragic, this is a surprisingly quiet book that I was sorry to see end.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows)

A gentle, sad, and ultimately redemptive story where the main character appears only in the recollections of others. Told in epistolary style, the narrative centers on a British author in 1946 who finds herself drawn into the history of the Society of the title, a group formed on the Isle of Guernsey during the German occupation in WWII. It is a tale of humanity at its best and worst, of what it means to love and what it means to lose and yet win. It never hurries, it never beats you over the head with plot twists or drama, and yet this story will stay with you long after the last page is turned.

The Age of American Unreason (Susan Jacoby)

A cultural history of the decline of the ability of Americans to deal with the world in a rational manner, this book covers topics ranging from the history and impact of fundamentalist and New Age religions to the decline of scientific literacy and the rise of the politics of the sound bite. Jacoby is on firm footing in the earlier chapters when she focuses on those large trends, but toward the end when she goes on a tear about the effects of technology she runs perilously close to “get off my lawn you kids” territory (the fact that one cannot quote Aeschylus from memory is not indicative of an inability to think, for example, nor is the opposite true). Overall, however, a penetrating, well-written, and deeply disturbing book about the depths most Americans have become happy to sink to and demand others sink to as well.

The God Engines (John Scalzi)

Something of a departure from Scalzi’s usual military SF with a humanist bent and from his other SF works as well, this novella is a dark meditation on faith and how this differs from truth. In a society ruled by the representatives of The Lord, where defeated gods are enslaved and literally turned into the engines that run space ships, one ship’s captain is about to find out that everything he took for granted about his world and his God is not what he believed.

Perry et al v. Schwartzenegger et al (US District Court, Northern California, Judge Vaughn Walker).

I hesitated to put this on as a book, but since it’s actually longer than the novella The God Engines, I figured why not. And it’s my list, so there. This was the decision that overturned California’s Prop 8, which had banned gay marriages. Walker, a Reagan/Bush appointee and a conservative, based his decision squarely on the 14th Amendment, the single most important amendment to the entire Constitution. It is thorough, meticulous, and a marvelous example of the ongoing attempt to bring American practice into line with American ideals. Naturally it is vociferously opposed by the radical right of this country, which seems to think the USA is part theocracy, part authoritarian dictatorship, and all theirs. It has already been appealed and I am not optimistic of its chances of survival in the current configuration of the US Supreme Court, but one can hope.

Last Night in Twisted River (John Irving)

John Irving is one of the handful of writers whose work I will buy sight unseen, simply because they wrote it, and this is one of his best. A slow, bittersweet tale of violence, history and family, it follows the lives of Dominic and Daniel Baciagalupo from the logging camp of the title in the early 1950s (with digressions even earlier) though the early 20th century. The characters are strong, the writing is luminous and often elegiac, even in the present tense, and the book compares favorably to A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Cider House Rules. Plus there is an afterward by Irving defending the use of plot against post-modern denigration, and for that alone Irving should be knighted.

Monster (A. Lee Martinez)

Monster Dionysus is an Animal Control Warden, even if the animals he controls tend to be the stuff of magic and legend. They’re still pests, and they still need to be controlled by Monster and his folding paper gnome, Chester. When he runs into Judy – a grocery store clerk whose workplace was recently visited by a yeti – his life takes a more serious turn as the forces of the Universe (which seem to run to cats and old women, oddly enough) pivot on their actions. A bit thin, but full of humor and action.

Don’t Quit Your Day Job: What the Famous Did That Wasn’t (Jack Lynch)

An enjoyable collection of fifty short essays on the careers that famous people have had – not just the jobs they held while working their way up, but actual careers that they often held throughout their period of fame. Some of them are surprising (Philip Glass was a plumber and a taxi driver, for example), and some of them are not (of course Franz Kafka was a lawyer for an insurance company – what else could he have possibly been?). Engagingly written and as addictive as potato chips, these essays flew by.

The Pursuit of Glory: The Five Revolutions That Made Modern Europe 1648-1815 (Tim Blanning)

A marvelously-written social and political history of Europe, one that manages to be both interesting and enlightening. Blanning’s opening thirty pages on the state of roads in early-modern Europe and what that meant in the larger scheme of things is worth the price of the book alone, but he continues with sections on economics, the meaning and nature of aristocracy, warfare, and on and on. A masterful book, although there is nothing there that justifies either the title or subtitle – Blanning advances no argument, but simply provides engrossing narrative and that is enough.

Blonde Bombshell (Tom Holt)

Tom Holt is one of those British comedy writers who should be better known in the US but probably won’t be because he most unequivocally writes in the Queen’s English rather than the American version. But he writes it very well and he has a knack for humor and oddball situations. This is the story of the inhabitants of the planet Ostar – a canine race that keeps humans as pets – who decide to destroy the Earth (or “Dirt” as they insist on translating it). The story is told largely from the point of view of the bomb, an artificial intelligence originally called the Mark Two but who takes the name “Mark Twain” because he thinks it will be inconspicuous as he tries to get to know the humans before he destroys them. Comedy, as they say, ensues.

Hell to Pay: Operation DOWNFALL and the Invasion of Japan, 1945-1947 (D.M. Giangreco)

Despite the garish title, this is a sober and sobering look at the actual planning and implications of what an invasion of Japan would have looked like. Giangreco has examined the US military’s plans and the Japanese military’s plans, compared the two, and concluded that any such invasion would have been far bloodier than most historians (and the US military) maintained. He is especially good at the logistical side of this, with chapters covering fuel, blood supplies and shipping, as well as showing how the Japanese knew precisely where and when the invasions would take place and how they prepared for it. The book is not well written and sentences, quotes, paragraphs, and even entire anecdotes are often repeated several times (ironically enough, a failing Giangreco shares with Gar Alperovitz, the historian he is most trying to rebut), but even so, if the atomic bomb and the war in the Pacific is an interest, this is a book that must be considered.

Monster, 1959 (David Maine)

The story of every 1950s B-movie horror film starring the Radioactive Monster, but without the horror and with a certain amount of sympathy for the wordless, mutated creature, this is a meditation on what is Other and what is Story, and at times a funny one.

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