Friday, January 6, 2012

Books Read in 2011 - Part 4

And so it ends, as it began, with me deep in a book.

As it should be.


The Abide Guide: Living Like Lebowski (Oliver Benjamin & Dwayne Eutsey)

As an ordained minister in the Church of the Latter Day Dude (which, I have discovered, entitles me to perform legal wedding ceremonies here in the State of Wisconsin – and at reasonable rates, I might add) I thought it would be interesting to see what the founders of the LDD church would say about their creation. I was wrong. This book is what happens when you string out a 10-page essay to book length and then try to make it folksy by introducing random misspelled words designed to make it sound like the reader were listening to a semi-literate hillbilly. There are also far too many almost-clever puns on the word “Dude” for anyone to stomach without serious hallucinogens. These guys can write – there are long stretches of correctly spelled, grammatical sentences – but when everything has to convert an amusing movie into a Statement About Life, it gets thin.

The Crowfield Curse (Pat Walsh)

This is a YA book and, from all evidence, probably the first of a series. William is a lay brother at an English monastery in the year 1347. An orphan, he was taken in by the brothers as cheap labor and he earns his keep doing whatever is asked of him. Out gathering firewood one day he runs across an injured hob – a fay, whom only those with the Sight can see. He brings this hob back to the monastery where it can be cared for, and from there the realms of the fay and humanity slowly collide – the focal point being a dead angel supposedly buried not far from the monks and whose secret they are asked to guard. When mysterious visitors arrive, all of the strands of the story more or less converge (there are a few gaps) and – as in all YA novels – the protagonist is asked to come of age. A light read, but a fun one.

Snuff (Terry Pratchett)

Commander Samuel Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch is perhaps Pratchett’s most well-developed character and, one suspects, something of a stand-in for the person Pratchett would most like to be. Humane, mostly honest, tolerant, nobody’s fool and a terrible enemy to have, Vimes is the moral heart of the Discworld series, a series that makes you think as well as laugh. Here Vimes is on holiday in the country, a place he regards as a special form of hell. But crimes – big crimes – are afoot, and Duke though he may now be Vimes will always be a “copper” at heart. It is astonishing that Pratchett can still write books like this, given his health.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Brian Selznick)

Hugo Cabret is an orphan living inside the walls of a vast train station in France. He maintains the station’s clocks, unbeknownst to the commuters and workers there, and his prized possession is an automaton he rescued from the fire that killed his father. That automaton will lead him on the adventure of his life, an adventure filled with early French cinema. The book is told partly in words and partly in atmospheric black and white charcoal drawings. I’m glad they’re finally making a movie of this most cinematic of books.

Bible Stories for Adults (James Morrow)

James Morrow is an angry man, at least if his writings are to be trusted in that regard. His stories brim with outrage at the cruelties that humans inflict on one another in the name of pride, patriotism and religion, and they can be bruising, heartbreaking things to read. This is a collection of short stories, many of which have an explicitly Biblical theme while others are related only stylistically. My personal favorite was “Diary of a Mad Deity,” in which the title character is never actually identified as a god but is certainly mad in an original way. Morrow’s retelling of the story of Job is also fascinating.

Unfamiliar Fishes (Sarah Vowell)

I first ran into Sarah Vowell’s writing when I heard her on This American Life describing scenes from her childhood. Her mordant humor is an acquired taste, but I’ve enjoyed pretty much everything she’s published. This book was no different, though it was a bit plodding at times. Vowell sets out to tell the story of how Hawaii became missionized and then Americanized in the decades leading up to its forcible – and questionably legal – annexation into the United States. This is clearly an outgrowth of her earlier book, The Wordy Shipmates, which focused on the Puritans of New England who would, two centuries later, supply the missionaries that would undo Hawaiian culture. This is an angrier book than most of Vowell’s work, but in a gentle and bittersweet sort of way.

Little People (Tom Holt)

It’s astonishing how comedies can be so heartbreakingly sad. When Michael was eight he saw an elf, but nobody ever believed him except his Daddy George (who knew very well it was real because he’d kidnapped it to be there) and his one true love, an obnoxious girl named Cruella who is a teenager when we meet her. And every time Michael falls into Elfland or gets himself into some other related pickle Cru is there at the end, in a Chekhovian display of missed connections and love that doesn’t work out. Holt puts his characters through hell, in an amusing sort of way, and their redemption is almost always almost accomplished. There are some real laughs in here, but a more bittersweet book would be hard to find.

One Minute To Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War (Michael Dobbs)

If you ever want to sleep peacefully at night again, you should probably skip this book. Dobbs has gone through any number of archives and interviews never before accessed by scholars and here provides perhaps the most definitive account to date of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, an event that brought the world closer to full-scale nuclear war than any other crisis of the Cold War. In this minute-by-minute account stretching from Moscow to Havana to Washington DC to Alaska, Dobbs details just how close a thing it was. If you wargame this event – start at the beginning, run through to the end, repeat, repeat, repeat – there are very, very few scenarios that end up with all of us still here today.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Stieg Larsson)

I started reading this book because of a discussion I got into with some friends of mine regarding the proper methods and goals of translations, with this book as Exhibit A. Kim also read it earlier and – being fluent in Swedish – she had remarked that it was a great story but that the translation was at times creakily literal and she could hear the Swedish underneath. Not speaking Swedish myself, I didn’t get that part of it. But the strength of this book was definitely the story rather than the language, and I suspect the translation is at least partly at fault. Mikael Blomkvist is a journalist who has just lost a major libel case when the story opens. Out of the blue he is hired by an aging industrialist to solve the mystery of a decades old murder, and in good investigative journalist fashion the story gets far more complex than it first appears. Two things are striking. First, the pronounced Swedishness of the story – things happen here in passing that would definitely not happen in an American book. And second, the character of Lisbeth Salander is a fascinating one. I can see why these books are so popular.

Nocturnes (John Connolly)

Edgar Allen Poe wrote the first detective story. He also specialized in tales of the supernatural and the macabre. John Connolly is one of the few writers who seems to follow in both of Poe’s footsteps with each story he writes. This is a collection of short stories, all of them with supernatural elements and many with detective stories around them. They’re not deep, but they read well.

The Girl Who Played With Fire (Stieg Larsson)

It’s a year or so after the events of the last book featuring Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist, and things are going well for both in their separate ways. Salander has money and has been traveling around the world. Blomkvist is back being the crusading journalist he has always been. But when two of his colleagues about to publish a searing expose of the sex trade industry are brutally murdered, Salander becomes the prime suspect. And from there it is a breathless race to the finish, with twists, turns, brutality, heroism, betrayal and not a little plain weirdness. Although it was better translated than the first book.

Blue and Gold (KJ Parker)

This novella is probably Parker’s lightest work yet, though even so it deals with betrayal, murder and intrigue. It is the first-person narrative of an alchemist – a self-admitted rogue with a tenuous relationship to truth and a deep desire to be somewhere other than where he is. His voice is droll and often morbidly funny – a rarity in Parker’s work – but ultimately the story is as bleak as most of what Parker writes, though in perhaps a less disastrous way than usual.

Rascal (Sterling North)

This is another book that Lauren and I worked our way through at bedtime – the story of a boy and a raccoon, and the year they spent together in a town not all that far from Our Little Town (which made Lauren happy, hearing the familiar landmarks). What impressed me more than anything else was how much freedom an 11-year-old boy had in the Wisconsin of 1918 to wander and live unsupervised, and how many things that he took for granted I know about only because I’m a professional historian and had to explain them to Lauren. The book is a classic for good reason, and it is a shame that so few people read it anymore.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (Stieg Larsson)

More or less immediately following the events of The Girl Who Played With Fire, Salander is in the hospital, Blomkvist is working to figure out the train of events that has led to this point, and seemingly every police agency and government bureaucracy in Sweden is either about to get sucked into the story or already there. Larsson keeps a lot of balls in the air with this story and doesn’t go for the easy solutions or cliched setups. Brutally compelling, this series highlights how much of a loss to the world of fiction Larsson’s early death was.

“There Are Things I Want You To Know” About Stieg Larsson and Me (Eva Gabrielsson)

I suppose there is only so much one can expect from a Swedish book translated into English via French, and good writing is not on that list. This book was a chore to read, and only the fact that I was interested in the subject and the chapters were very short kept me moving forward. Gabrielsson was Larsson’s sambo – short for samman boende or sam boende, a word that has no real equivalent in English, but translates more or less as “cohabiting partner without marriage.” Charles Osgood once wrote a poem using the equivalent US Census term, POSSLQ (Person of Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters). When Larsson died, Gabrielsson and his family got into a pitched battle over the literary rights to his estate, and this book is essentially her saying, over and over and over and over, “I deserve them, not his brother and father.” I cannot even begin to say whether she is right or not, but the book is such a self-serving whinge that it sheds little light on the subject.

American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (Colin Woodard)

I’ve loved books like this ever since I read Joel Garreau’s The Nine Nations of North America back in the 80s, a book Woodard namechecks. Woodard makes the argument that the political borders of North America – particularly those of the US – are essentially useless as far as understanding either its history or its current politics. Instead, he offers a set of cultural regions, each with its own political, cultural and economic priorities, and each with its own agenda, allies and history. These are Yankeedom, New France, New Netherlands, the Midlands, Tidewater, the Deep South, Greater Appalachia, El Norte, the Far West, the Left Coast, and – confined to what is now Canada – First Nation. Woodard does a nice job of showing how each of these regions began, evolved, and influenced history, and his regional take on both the Revolution and the Civil War was fascinating. He often overstates his argument, in a “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” sort of way, particularly when he drifts into arguing that the regions thought self-consciously about the regional nature of their actions, and there are a distracting number of simple factual errors sprinkled throughout the book, but even so – it’s a book that provides a new way of looking at American history and culture, and even with its flaws it gives the reader a lot to think about. The county-by-county map on the frontispiece is particularly interesting.

Burn Down the Sky (James Jaros)

This is why I should never take the girls to the library – I just pick up random books and end up checking them out. Post-apocalyptic fiction seems to have moved on from nuclear war to climate change, and this is a good example. In what was once the United States, some decades after it collapsed from severe climate change and the effects of a virus that renders sex with any woman more than one year removed from her first period deadly, marauders attack a refugee camp, killing most and kidnapping several young girls for a religious cult. What follows is a tale of revenge and violence that moves along smartly enough to make you forget the rather clunky writing.

How Private Geo. W. Peck Put Down the Rebellion, or the Funny Experiences of a Raw Recruit (George W Peck)

George W Peck was, according to historian Robert Nesbit, one of the few intentionally humorous governors of Wisconsin. He was also a Civil War veteran who spent much of the post war period as a humorist and lecturer, working the same crowds that Mark Twain appeared before. The book was originally published in 1887 and was apparently a collection of a weekly serial that gathered together his lectures in one place, and it follows the lighter side of the Civil War as seen by one hapless cavalry private. It's a study in the long rolling cadences of 19th-century humor and it can be very funny - Peck portrays himself as an overconfident innocent who thinks he's sharper than he is - but you do need to have a tolerance for the times. The book is full of the brutally casual racism of the day and by any 21st-century standard is phenomenally offensive that way. Mostly, though, Peck manages to find the humane side of the Civil War and his opponents, and if you can grant Peck his 19th-century context it is a book worth reading.

Total books: 77
Total pages: 29,391
Pages/day: 80.5

Happy reading!


John the Scientist said...

Seeing as you like Woodard's book, how do you like Albion's Seed?

David said...

I enjoyed it when I read it, but that was in 1989 so I don't remember it all that clearly.

Fischer does some interesting work in general, and I find his perspectives generally useful in my own thinking.

Perhaps I should read it again.