Thursday, January 5, 2012

Books Read in 2011 - Part 3

I really don't know when I found time to sleep.


Three Californias: The Wild Shore (Kim Stanley Robinson)

Sixty-three years after the US was destroyed by neutron bombs Americans are held in quarantine by the UN, kept ignorant about the world beyond their borders and living in small pre-industrial villages amid the ruins of the old civilization. In the coastal village of Onofre, north of San Diego, Hank and his friends struggle to grow up and understand their world. When visitors from San Diego arrive it sets in motion a story that is surprisingly small but with larger implications. This is one of three books Robinson wrote about different possible futures for California, and the only one involving nuclear war. The neutron bomb approach marks it as different, since there isn’t the physical destruction to contend with.

Clash of the Geeks (Wil Wheaton, John Scalzi, et al)

I downloaded this as part of a fundraiser Scalzi was running, where you could have it for a $5 donation to charity. Basically the set-up is that there is a painting of Wil Wheaton wearing a clown sweater, riding a Pegasus-unicorn-kitten and pointing a spear threateningly at John Scalzi, who is a green-skinned orc holding an axe and a shield. Several authors chipped in stories (and in once case, composed music) in an attempt to explain this image. It’s exactly as weird as it sounds.

Listening is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life from the StoryCorps Project (Dave Isay, ed.)

This is a short book built around a simple but powerful idea – that ordinary people have stories worth hearing. The StoryCorps Project has a number of booths where people can go and talk for 40 minutes, after which they receive a broadcast quality CD of their stories and another copy goes to the Library of Congress. The stories that come out are everything that makes us human – heartbreaking, humane, tragic, affirmative, and moving. This is a book everyone should read.

Summerland (Michael Chabon)

Ethan Feld is the worst baseball player on Clam Island. But when he is scouted by the mysterious Chiron Brown and – along with his friends Jennifer T. Rideout and Thor Wignutt – heads off to the Summerland to rescue his father, he finds a world in peril. Coyote, the ancient trickster, is up to no good and it is up to Ethan and his friends new and old to thwart him. This is an affectionate romp through American folklore and baseball, one that reminds the reader that it’s more than just a game, even when it’s just a game.

Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Gordon Wood)

If you are looking to understand the political and cultural origins of the United States as an independent republic, this is the place to start. Wood is one of the most respected historians in this field, and in this masterful work of synthesis he pulls together much of the best scholarship of the early American republic and sets it before the reader in clear (if often dense) prose. The chapters on the establishment of the American judiciary and judicial review and the chapter on religion in the early republic are particularly thought-provoking, and the bibliographic essay at the end alone is worth the price of admission for those who truly wish to understand what this country was actually founded upon.

Aftertime (Sophie Littlefield)

Have you ever wondered what would happen if you took the post-apocalyptic classic I Am Legend and forcibly mated it with a Harlequin Romance? Wonder no more. Cass Dollar wakes up alone in a world where most people are dead and most of those still walking around are called Beaters – shuffling zombie-like creatures who feast on the skin (called “flesh” throughout the book, in explicit contrast with muscle tissue) of the living, the result of a disease caused by a bioengineering experiment gone awry. The first third is a passably workmanlike post-apocalyptic exploration of this world. And then Cass meets Smoke – a tormented, impossibly handsome and noble hero with deep dark secrets of his own – and quickly the metaphorical bodices get ripped off and the story sort of devolves from there. Too much Harlequin, too many plot threads that go nowhere, an ending that resolves almost nothing and a middle third given over almost entirely to breathless introspection make this a book that’s easy to put down in every sense of that phrase.

The $64 Tomato (William Alexander)

Gardening memoirs are a genre unto themselves, and – not having much interest in gardening – not one I read very much of. But I’ve always liked people telling their stories, and Alexander is a fair-to-middling storyteller. He and his wife move out of Yonkers and into The Big Brown House in their new small town and there they put over 2000 square feet of vegetable gardens into the clay soil of their new property. If the weeds don’t drive them crazy the groundhogs will.

Earth, Air, Fire and Custard (Tom Holt)

The third installment of the ever-stranger story of sad-sack Paul, his bony and irritable true love Sophie, and their adventures at London’s premier firm of sorcery, applied magic and pest control, JW Wells & Co. Trying to summarize the plot is a no-win effort, as Holt excels at twists, turns and places that seem like endings but are just landings in the spiral staircase of the story. You feel for the two of them, even as you want to smack them both and tell them not to be so stupid, and you’re never sure if they win in the end or not, even at the end. That’s good writing.

The Age of Fracture (Daniel T. Rodgers)

In this densely argued and historically rigorous monograph, Daniel T. Rodgers argues that the last four or five decades of American history have been marked by a pervasive destruction of the bonds that held Americans together. In particular, Rodgers argues that the mental structures of microeconomics – the obsessive focus on the individual actor at the expense of communal structures, the gloss of perfect rationality, the odd absence of power differentials – have triumphed in American culture, particularly (though not exclusively) among right-wing Americans. Thought-provoking though not exactly cheering, this is a book that deserves consideration for anyone trying to figure out how the US has come to the point it is at these days. Rodgers’ dismantling of the “original intent” reading of the Constitution is worth the price of admission alone.

The Complete Monty Python’s Flying Circus: All the Words, Vol. 1 (Graham Chapman, et al)

This is exactly what it says it is – a complete transcript of the first 23 episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which aired in 1969 and 1970. It’s astonishing how well the humor holds up across decades and miles, and yet how firmly rooted it is in the context of its time and place. There’s also a Vol. 2, which I will get to eventually.

Ariel (Steven R. Boyett)

Five years after the Change wiped out most technology and allowed magic to work again, a man and his unicorn set out on a quest. This was Boyett’s first novel and it shows – the writing is solid on the surface, but there’s not a whole lot going on underneath in terms of the characters. I often found myself wondering just why a particular character would do that. But it’s an interesting world to explore, and the rules to having a unicorn as your friend are more complicated than you’d think. The author’s afterword in this newly expanded edition adds a lot.

Elegy Beach (Steven R. Boyett)

Boyett swore he would never write a sequal to Ariel, and yet – three decades later – he returned to that world to finish the story of Pete and Ariel, though largely through the eyes of Pete’s son, Fred. Boyett has improved markedly as a writer, and the world he created retains its complexity while adding more nuance and motivation. This was, not unexpectedly, a better book than the first one. Both are essentially meditations on growing up, and bittersweet as such things tend to be, but worth reading.

Shadow Divers (Robert Kurson)

When a team of amateur shipwreck divers in New Jersey discover the wreck of a WWII German U-Boat where no such wreck should exist, it sparks a flurry of adventure, both nautical and historical. Divers Richie Kohler and John Chatterton spent years diving and researching the wreck, fraying their marriages and losing several colleagues in the process to the dangers of the deep, but eventually they identified the ship, corrected the historical record, and got a decent thriller out of it. The author gets a bit breathless (and his view of What History Is is a bit odd), but it is a fascinating look at a world that most of us will never see. This book was recommended to me by my friend Koji, to whom the authors inscribed his copy. It is no small thing to lend someone such a book.

You Don’t Have to be Evil to Work Here, But It Helps (Tom Holt)

Paul and Sophie have moved on, but JW Wells & Co, London’s premier firm of sorcery, applied magic and pest control, soldiers on. Colin just wants to live his life, preferably without being too involved with his father’s struggling manufacturing firm. His father, however, has engaged JW Wells to provide them with free workers for eternity, at the cost of only one soul. The firm is being bought out by mysterious purchasers, and two of the remaining partners are on the way out but determined to get their licks in before they go. And then it gets weird, because true love gets involved – though whose true love is anyone’s guess.

Flowers for Algernon (Daniel Keyes)

Charlie is what we would call “mentally challenged” these days but when this book was written in 1959 was called “retarded” or more bluntly a “moron,” which was at the time a technical term and not just an insult. But through cutting edge experimental treatment, he becomes a genius. We read his story through first-person accounts, as his spelling improves and his ideas get more complex, and we see his future when Algernon, the mouse on whom the experiment was previously done, begins to deteriorate. And then we follow Charlie as he deteriorates as well. It’s a heartbreaking book that way, though Charlie isn’t all that sympathetic a character (deliberately so) and the basic assumptions of the book are firmly rooted in the mid-20th-century American middle class in the much the same way that JG Ballard’s stories are. It’s a book about what makes us human, and how hard it is to hold onto – though whether Charlie becomes more or less so over the course of the book is not obvious, nor should it be.

I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This! (Bob Newhart)

If you’ve ever wondered what a memoir by Bob Newhart would be like, this is it. It is wryly funny, gently amusing, and as deep as a fly’s wing. Newhart goes through how he came to be in the business, discusses in broad and generally complimentary terms the people he’s met and the projects he’s been involved in, and throws in large chunks of his more famous routines. The whole thing adds up to a breezy and amusing way to pass a few hours, but no more. If you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you’ll like. If you hope to get to know the man behind the stage act, look elsewhere.

Supreme Courtship (Christopher Buckley)

What would happen if a president – an unpopular but honest man whose first two well-qualified nominations to the Supreme Court were destroyed by the kind of hyperpartisan witch-hunts that typify the confirmation process these days – decided to nominate a TV judge to the Court instead? And what would happen if that judge were actually to be confirmed? That’s essentially the set-up for this novel, although the plot isn’t really what makes it work. Mostly this is yet another excuse for Buckley to demonstrate that he’s one of the funniest political satirists working in America today, witty enough to pull laughs out of cross-examination dialogue. In an age where politics is a death-match between extremist morons, it’s nice to remember when it was still possible for reasonable people to make a living at it.

The Phantom Tollbooth (Norton Juster)

Milo is a very unsatisfied boy, always wanting to be somewhere else and never happy when he gets there. One day he comes home to find a box containing a tollbooth and a small car, and when he drives past he finds himself in the decaying Kingdom of Wisdom, where he teams up with a giant insect (the Humbug) and a watch dog named Tock on a journey through the Mountains of Ignorance to rescue the Princesses Rhyme and Reason from the Castle in the Air. It’s one long pun and a deeper story about what you have to do to find real wisdom. Lauren and I read this together as a bedtime story – it has long been one of my favorites, and I’m hoping it is one of hers now too.

From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain (Minister Faust)

At what point does a parody become too good for its own good? This isn’t the intended focus of this book, but it becomes that focus anyway. The setup for the story is interesting – the world’s superheroes (an astonishingly large number of “hyper-hominids,” really) have vanquished all of their evil foes. Now what? Unable to deal with their newfound lack of purpose, the FOOJ (“Fantastic [nee Fraternal] Order of Justice”) sends several of its more edgy members into forced psychotherapy with Dr. Eva Brain-Silverman, Freudian self-help guru to the stars. The book is actually framed as a self-help manual written by Dr. Brain, using the experience of these sessions as a guide for future readers, though between the lines a different story – one where not all the villains are as dead or identifiable as first thought – emerges. So it’s clever. And well written. But Faust does such a good job of capturing the psychobabble of self-help books and both the bull-headed ignorance of Freudian psychoanalysts and their ability to turn any development whatsoever into conclusive proof of their predetermined theories that at times the book is positively painful to read. I suppose that’s a mark of talent, but it didn’t make finishing this book any easier. Also, despite being published in 2007 the book’s ideological concerns and cultural references all scream “mid-1990s,” which gets distracting after a while.

The Heroes (Joe Abercrombie)

War is a game played by tired men, men whose knees hurt and who have buried most of their friends long ago. In Joe Abercrombie’s world there is no glory in war, not for anyone who has a decent head on their shoulders and aims to keep it there. There is treachery, cowardice, bravery, generosity, horror, damnation, redemption, camaraderie, death and survival, all of the best and worst that humanity has to offer, but no glory and precious few heroes. The Heroes – named for a standing circle of stones and only ironically referring to the men who gather beneath it – is a tightly focused book, spanning a three-day battle between the North and the Union. It features many of the same characters from his earlier books, older and more battered, more reflective if not necessarily wiser. Abercrombie is a master of point-of-view, particularly in the heat of battle. It’s a grim book in both its humor and its action, and well worth reading.

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