And so we reach the end of 2010’s books.
No wonder I’m always tired.
The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins)
In a North America long removed from today, The Capital rules the twelve districts with iron, cruelty and hunger. And every year, as a reminder of their subordination, each district must send two tributes – one boy, one girl, each between the ages of 12 and 18 – to play in the Hunger Games. Only one tribute makes it out of the arena alive. When Katniss Everdeen impulsively substitutes for her sister and becomes a tribute, we follow her through the Games. This is another in what is apparently the golden age of Young Adult fiction that we live in – well written, occasionally moving, and utterly without any creature that sparkles.
Catching Fire (Suzane Collins)
Katniss Everdeen is back and just as much in the dark about events as ever in this middle volume of the Hunger Games trilogy. This book suffers from the main mechanical problem of most second volumes – how to pick up a story and then drop it off without either beginning or ending anything of real significance – as well as from a lot of writing directed specifically at its primary audience of teenaged girls, of which I am not one. It’s still an engaging story, as Katniss is pulled back into the Games and the political intrigue that surrounds them, but there are times when you just want to whack her with a dead fish and tell her to stop being so dense. Nevertheless, a good book and one that leaves you interested in where the story goes in the next volume.
Mockingjay (Suzanne Collins)
The Hunger Games comes to a crashing end as the rebellion against the Capitol rises to its conclusion. And in the middle, caught by her successes as much as her failures, is Katniss Everdeen. Obtuse, emotional, and by her own definitions pretty much a failure, she still manages to do what she has to do, even if it may or may not square with what she intends or wants to do. Collins has the grace to end this stark series on a quiet, reflective and bittersweet note rather than the triumphalist blaze of glory she could so easily have employed, and the story is more powerful for it.
I Shall Wear Midnight (Terry Pratchett)
Terry Pratchett has said that he does his best writing for a YA audience, and this book is proof of that, although it does not feel like a YA book. Tiffany Aching is a witch, and witches in Discworld are the people who do the things that need to be done that others don’t want to do. And for this they are often hated. When the Cunning Man, a manifestation of ancient hatreds, comes after Tiffany, things get ugly fast. Pratchett is unusual in the SF/F genre because his works come with such a clear moral framework – humane, humanist, warm, skeptical, and tolerant. “Evil begins when you begin to treat people as things,” he says. This is the best Discworld book since Nightwatch.
Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free (Charles Pierce)
This book follows much the same lines of argument as Susan Jacoby’s Age of American Unreason (a book he often refers to), though with a sharper focus on modern American politics and a sharper wit in general. Where Jacoby was calmly analytical, Pierce is an angry and sarcastic man on a mission – to rescue the US from its self-imposed exile in Idiot America, where truth is measured by how many units a belief can sell, how many people subscribe to it, and how fervently they believe it, independent of whether this belief has any factual merit or not. With chapters on Intelligent Design (including the Creationism Museum and the Dover PA court decision), Terry Schaivo, the “War on Terror,” the torture porn of “24,” and global climate change, and references to James Madison, Masons, and the inimitable American crank Ignatius Donnelly, Pierce lambastes the current American preference for nonsense, “faith-based” realities and other hokum and laments the transformation of the honorable American crank into the mainstream of American politics. We have abandoned “our duty to treat the ridiculous with ridicule,” he writes, and we are poorer for it.
The Carpet People (Terry Pratchett)
This is Pratchett’s first book – one that was published when he was 17 – but one he reworked when he was in his 40s. Even with the rework it is a bit rough, but it shows all of the traits that would become Pratchett hallmarks – the clever humor, the humanistic moral framework, and so on. And it obviously leaves room for a sequel. Deep inside the Carpet there are tribes, villages and empires, and all is not well.
Island of the Sequined Love Nun (Christopher Moore)
One of Moore’s early books, but still full of his trademark screwball sense of humor, profaneness, and humanity. Tucker Case is a glamorous failure of a pilot who, with his navigator, finds himself on a remote island in the Pacific, surrounded by the Shark People (a cargo cult culture), two charlatans, a squad of Japanese guards, the ghost of a WWII bomber pilot, and a talking fruit bat named Roberto. And it just gets weirder from there.
Coyote Blue (Christopher Moore)
One of Moore’s weirder novels, which is saying something, especially since it seems on the surface to be such a straightforward story. Where Island of the Sequined Love Nun wears its weirdness proudly on its sleeve, Coyote Blue submerges it underneath the events. Sam Hunter, insurance salesman, started out life as Samson Hunts Alone before fleeing the Crow Reservation to start a new life. But a girl named Calliope, her baby boy Grubb, and the trickster god Coyote all conspire to bring him back in ways that even the god sometimes doesn’t understand. Quick, funny, and redemptive.
My Movie Business (John Irving)
A wry, generous, aphoristic and often funny look at the movie business from a writer trying to get a movie made using his own script based on his own book, intermingled with family history, thoughts on the craft of writing, and general observations on humanity, this is a book that manages to be densely packed and breezy at the same time. The Cider House Rules is one of Irving’s best novels, and a wonderful movie as well (though the book was written and published before the movie was released, giving it a certain surreal quality since we know how it turns out and he doesn’t), and Irving’s take on the differences between the book and the movie is worth the time. Anything by John Irving is worth the time.
It All Changed in an Instant: More Six Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure. (Larry Smith, Rachel Fershleiser, eds.)
“For Sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.” So goes the most famous six-word memoir in literary history, written by Ernest Hemingway, supposedly in response to a bar bet that he couldn’t tell a complete story in six words. He did, and now it has become a minor cultural trend. This is the fourth book of such things that the authors have compiled. Most of the entries submitted through Smith Magazine strive to be amusing. Some are poignant. Others rise to the sublime. It’s a quick read – I zipped through this while sitting in the library waiting for my daughters to find books they wanted to check out – but an amusing one.
1945 (Robert Conroy)
A somewhat didactic novel that gets better as it goes along, in large part because the info-dumps get less common, this novel explores the question of what would have happened at the end of WWII had the atomic bombs been dropped and the Japanese still not surrendered. The coup that tried to derail the Emperor’s pronouncement to that effect was, after all, very nearly successful, and in this book it does succeed. Conroy has done some homework for this novel – he cites a number of nonfiction books I’ve read, for example – and his answer to his own question is that the US would have had to invade Kyushu. Ultimately, in fiction as in real life, the Japanese are doomed – but Conroy does manage to hang a decent story on this peg.
Odd Man Out: A Year on the Mound with a Minor League Misfit (Matt McCarthy)
Matt McCarthy spent four years on the worst baseball team Yale University ever fielded, but still managed to get a contract with the Anaheim Angels to pitch for their single-A farm team in Provo, Utah. There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about this book – it is very much in the tradition of all oddball sports books, with memorable characters, strange goings-on, and the sense of inevitable doom that you get when you realize that as a baseball fan you’ve never heard of McCarthy so you know he doesn’t become a star. But it is well written, often funny, more often reflective, and a light but fascinating look at baseball as it is practiced away from the spotlight of the Major League.
The War After Armageddon (Ralph Peters)
Yet another of my post-apocalyptic novels, though this one is focused on the apocalyptic process itself. Set in the indeterminate near future, maybe 30 years from now, this book chronicles a war in a Middle East where Israel and Iran have been nuked off the map. There are Jihadis on one side of this war, and two very different groups of Americans on the other – the US Army and Marines, on the one hand, and the Military Order of the Brothers In Christ on the other. The basic question of the book is what happens when Christian jihadis take over America, and the answers are not comforting. The author is very good at action scenes (he is a former military intelligence officer), and he pulls few punches, either in specific battles or overall message.
Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future (Will Bunch)
This was another one of those books that was hard to read simply because it’s painful to watch the same mistakes being made over and over, and you just keep hoping people will wise up and not do that but of course it’s history and it’s already happened, so they don’t. Bunch’s main point is two-fold. First, that the actual Reagan was not nearly as right-wing as he is made out to be – that he did have significant achievements during his presidency, and that almost all of them were due to a pragmatic streak that allowed him to govern from a far more moderate position than his rhetoric implied. And second, that this first point has been deliberately and carefully obscured by those who would claim his mantle. The “conservative” movement of this past decade is led by ideologues with a deep disdain for reality if it contradicts their preconceived fantasies, and by separating Reagan’s rhetoric from his reality, they seek to use him to bludgeon the rest of us into falling in line with their failed ideas.
The Portable Door (Tom Holt)
Sad sack Paul somehow manages to get hired by the prestigious London firm of J.W. Wells & Co., despite not having any idea what it is they actually do there. The work is mystifying, tedious and repetitive, and the only thing keeping him coming back is his growing love for his bony, ill-tempered and equally socially inept fellow hire, Sophie. And then they find out what it is J.W. Wells & Co. does, and it gets even weirder. This was a funny book, in a very British way, but I found myself sympathizing with put-upon, manipulated Paul and Sophie to the point where at times it was hard to read and I had to take a break.
Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle Earth (John Garth)
When we think of the writers who came out of the First World War, we tend to think of people like Wilfred Owen or Erich Remarque, but JRR Tolkien also served in that war, saw combat on the Western Front, and – like them – was a poet indelibly marked by the experience. This book, however, is oddly structured and does not really do what it sets out to do – connect Tolkien’s WWI experiences with his literary creations – until the Epilogue and its following Post-Script. Prior to that it bounces back and forth between being a narrowly focused biography of Tolkien between his Oxford student days at the beginning of the 1910s and his discharge from the British military in 1919, and a literary examination of the poetry and stories that he wrote during this time. It would have been a better book if Garth hadn’t waited until the last two chapters to make the connections between these two things clear.
The First World War (John Keegan)
A very good, thorough, basic history of the first half of the Second Thirty Years’ War, one that sets out the events and their rationales with a grim relentlessness and leaves you staggered that human beings would ever do such things voluntarily. Too few maps, but well written. If you’re looking for a single-volume overview of WWI, this is a good one.
The Great War and Modern Memory (Paul Fussell)
This is a more literary view of the First World War, focusing on the way that the war was encoded in its poetry and prose, generally (though not always) by the soldiers who fought it. Fussell – who served in the Second World War as an infantryman and later became a professor of English literature – does a marvelous job recreating the mindset of the British side of the war. From Keegan, for example, we learn the strategy, tactics and outcomes of the Battle of the Somme. From Fussell we learn that the British troops referred to it as “The Great F***-Up.” As a historian I was more interested in how he described the events themselves rather than the literary images that derived from them, and it was also interesting to keep in mind the contrast between Fussell’s “Modern Memory” of 1975 and today.
Lower Merion and Narberth: Postcard History Series (Lower Merion Historical Society)
Arcadia Press has been running this operation for years now – they approach local historical societies like the one I used to run, societies that usually have large collections of Real-Photo Postcards from the early 20th century, and get them to select a few for a book of local history. There is a standard format to fit it all into, complete with layout, and you just plug and play. And you know what? It works. If you know the area or the history, they’re fun little books. This is a nice collection of images from where I grew up (although oddly there are none from my end of the township at all, which may have something to do with the fact that the Historical Society is located on the other end), and it was fascinating to see things I remembered in images even older than that. I even learned a few things.
How to Live Safely in a Science-Fiction Universe (Charles Yu)
Charles Yu – the character, not the author – is a time machine repairman who spends an entire book wrestling with the conundrums of time travel and the complexities this introduces into his relationship with his father, who may or may not have invented the process but who is now lost. Meditative, overly analytical and just a bit too clever by half, this is a book that likes to hear itself talk but manages to be entertaining in doing so.
A Moose and a Lobster Walk Into a Bar… (John McDonald)
John McDonald is apparently a columnist in Maine, one of those “local color” guys who ply their trade everywhere in America’s newspapers. This is a collection of his columns, lightly edited into book form and purporting to give you a slice of Maine’s character through its stories. Sometimes this does not work – the first chapter, for example, is a compendium of every old shaggy dog story ever told, all of which I had heard by the time I’d graduated college, some set to music – but when he stops trying to tell jokes and just tells stories, then the book actually does do a nice job of achieving its purpose.
Waiter Rant (Steve Dublanica)
I ran into The Waiter’s blog at some point in the last few years and enjoyed it thoroughly. Not only did he have fascinating stories to tell about life in the front of the house at a relatively upscale New York restaurant, but he was a great writer as well. And then it became a book, as so many blogs seem to do when they take off. And then The Waiter lost his anonymity and became Steve Dublanica. This is what Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential would be if it were written by a waiter instead of a chef – quick, cutting, funny, human, and oddly thoughtful, though with less profanity and more reflection.
Total books read: 75
Total pages read: 25,006
Average pages/day: 68.5