Friday, January 9, 2015

Books Read in 2014, Part 1

I read.  It's what I do.

And since I started this blog I have kept track of the books I read.  It makes for some interesting reflection at the end of the year, to see what has caught my eye over the previous twelve months.  Or, indeed, the previous years.

Here is this year's list, more or less in order.



We Learn Nothing (Tim Kreider)

I found this book when a blog I read posted an excerpt from it.  It’s the bit where Krieder explains the difference between liberals and conservatives in the US.  According to his theory, liberals are the people who Got Out – who went to college, got ahead, and only come home for holidays.  Conservatives are the people who Stayed Put – who married their high school sweethearts, got jobs in town, and still care who won homecoming.  It does explain a lot of the general worldview of each side, if you push it far enough.  Kreider is a wonderful writer who seems to have lived a fascinating life and his essays reflect this, ranging from laugh-out-loud funny to bittersweet often within a single paragraph.  I particularly enjoyed his long story of how his friend Skelly’s secrets all came tumbling out after he died and what that said about both Skelly and Kreider, as well as his essay on reading Tristram Shandy, but they’re all good.  The cartoons in this book – Kreider made a living as an editorial cartoonist for most of the early 21st century – are also good but the typeface for the dialogue balloons is both narrow and punitively small, making them hard to read.  I need to find more of his essays.

The Lightning Thief (Rick Riordan)

Percy Jackson is a sixth-grader in trouble.  His mother is married to a gold-plated loser.  He’s on yet another school, having been thrown out of more of them than he cares to remember.  His only friend is a misfit named Grover.  And his math teacher turned into a screeching creature from Hades and tried to kill him, but nobody remembers it or even that he ever had such a math teacher.  When a much-needed vacation with his mother turns into a flight for his life, he finds himself at Camp Half-Blood, faced with two realizations: one, that his mother is now a captive of Hades, the god of the Underworld, and two, that he is a demigod, a child of an ancient Greek god still very much alive in the modern world.  When Zeus and Poseidon threaten war over Zeus’ missing lightning bolt, it falls to Percy, Grover, and their friend Annabeth – a girl about the same age, the daughter of Athena – to set things right.  This will involve a trip across the US, a descent into the Underworld, and some face-to-face realization of what it truly means to be the son of a god.  Riordan writes with gusto and a sly sense of humor (the chapter headings alone are priceless), and this book is far better than the mess of a movie that was made from it in 2010.  Lauren and I read this as part of our continuing effort to read quality books together at bedtime.

Winter’s Tale (Mark Helprin)

How to describe this book?  It is a love song to the city of New York.  It is a swirl of language that somehow manages to combine the rolling cadences and florid vocabulary of the nineteenth century with the artistic sensibility of the 1970s.  It is magic realism, a story of impossibilities taken for granted and realities portrayed in golden light.  It is the story of Peter Lake – always referred to by his full name – a master mechanic and a burglar in early 20th-century New York, in the years before the Great War.  Pursued by Pealy Soames and his criminal gang of Short Tails, saved by the white horse Athansor, loved by the consumptive Beverly Penn, Peter Lake soars across Progressive Era New York and falls, only to emerge at the turn of the millennium nearly a century later in a different city, one with familiar faces and new challenges whose solutions are ultimately in the hands of the reader.  I read this book at the urging of a friend, who said this was his favorite book.  “I don't know what the opposite of cynicism is,” he told me, “but whatever it is, this book breathes it in every sentence.”

Fight For Your Long Day (Alex Kudera)

Cyrus Duffleman is an adjunct lecturer in English literature at three different and barely disguised Philadelphia campuses (Urban State [clearly Temple], Liberty Tech [Drexel], and Ivy Green [Penn]), a tutor at another, a security guard in the evenings, and a card-carrying member of the impoverished temporary workforce that keeps modern academia afloat.  Adjuncts – as opposed to their more fortunate tenured coworkers now rapidly disappearing from the landscape as the American university system increasingly regards its faculty as a bothersome expense – teach for little pay, few benefits and no job security, and on Thursdays Duffleman has his long day.  All of his jobs require something from him on Thursdays, and this book is a narrative of one particular Thursday – One Day in the Life of Ivan Adjunctovich.  We follow him from class to class, from subway to light rail, and from one situation of powerlessness to another as he keeps up a running internal monologue that alternates between despair and stubborn persistence and as the events of the day rapidly spiral out of control.  There is a certain deadpan dispirited black humor in this that those of us on that treadmill will find amusing, even if it is cloaked in willfully non-PC observations, framed by oddly anesthetized violence impinging on the outskirts of his existence, and interrupted by a fair amount of the futile sort of left-wing political rambling that anyone who survived the reign of George W. Bush (“President Fern” here) would recognize.  As a native Philadelphian and graduate of Ivy Green I enjoyed following Duffleman around my former city – Kudera has a strong sense of place, and his narrative is very specific about such things as train station architecture – and I probably liked this book more than is good for me in my current employment situation.

Year Zero (Rob Reid)

Nick Carter is a lawyer in the entertainment copyright field, not one of the Backstreet Boys.  This becomes relevant because it turns out that 1) aliens love human music, 2) they love it so much that every last one of them has illegally downloaded every song ever broadcast since the Kotter Moment in 1977, when Earth’s electronic signals were first picked up, and 3) they owe humanity a ton of money in copyright violation fees – more than the sum total of all the wealth of the universe, thousands of times over.  To get out of this debt, they may destroy human civilization (or get us to do it to ourselves, which would accomplish the same goal without violating any alien laws).  Nick, his neighbor and love interest Manda, his shark of a boss Judy, his self-absorbed cousin Pugwash, and two rather inept aliens (Carly and Frampton – a surprising amount of alien culture was frozen at the Kotter Moment) have to figure out a way to prevent this.  It’s a funny book in some ways – not the new Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that the blurbs promise, but then nothing ever is – and a vitriolic satire of entertainment law, as you would expect given that the author founded  Much of the humor is designed to appeal to American conservatives – jokes at the expense of unions, government workers, and the whole notion of global climate change abound – but there are more than enough laughs from any perspective to keep the book going, and even the conservative jokes are funny.  It was a good book, and thus I’m really not sure why it was such a chore to read at times.

Red Country (Joe Abercrombie)

Joe Abercrombie’s world is a weary, gritty place full of violence and regret, mad schemes and harsh realities, where characters struggle against limits of their own creation and those imposed on them by others, and if they rarely ever win by their own standards, sometimes they come out having not quite lost.  Shy South and her adoptive father Lamb scratch out a living on a farm near the town of Squaredeal – a dusty hellhole of a place – but when a bandit burns the place down and steals her younger siblings they head off to get them back and wreak vengeance on the outlaws.  Temple is a lawyer for Nicomo Cosca’s mercenary army, a man given to more introspection than is safe in such a position, and he wants out.  Dab Sweet is a famous scout, one who knows his way around the Ghost people and Dragon people who make the west such a dangerous place.  Caul Shivers is looking for a nine-fingered man.  Somewhere is a rebellion, or might have been one.  And the town of Crease is about to explode into civil war.  Mix these all together and you have a breathtakingly written cross between fantasy and western, full of the mordant black humor that Abercrombie seems to specialize in.  For all their bleakness, these books are really funny when viewed from the right perspective.  Perhaps the most fascinating bit of this story is Lamb, a character whose real name is never once mentioned in the book but which should be familiar to anyone who has read the other books Abercrombie has set in this grim and unforgiving world.  How much does a name mean anyway, Lamb might say, when the person underneath never changes no matter how much he might wish it so?

The Sea of Monsters (Rick Riordan)

Percy Jackson survived his initiation into the world of demigods only to find himself back in the soup.  When his gym class degenerates into a fiery maelstrom he, his new friend Tyson, and his old friend Annabeth are forced to flee to Camp Half Blood, where things are not going well indeed.  Someone has poisoned Thalia’s tree, the new camp director is actively trying to destroy the place and take Percy with it, Grover is sending messages that he is in grave danger, and the quest to put things right is given to Clarisse rather than Percy.  Fortunately for us Percy, Annabeth and Tyson sneak out to join the quest, and adventures ensue.  It’s a breakneck tale of danger and escape, told with Riordan’s signature humor, and one that sets up the next book quite nicely.

The Better Mousetrap (Tom Holt)

Continuing his JW Wells series, this book opens with Frank Carpenter – the son of Sophie and Paul from the original books – plying his trade as, well, an insurance adjustor of sorts.  JW Wells, the finest purveyor of magical services and pest control in Britain, went broke at the end of the previous book so the various staff and magical items are scattered about and Frank freelances, using his dad’s Portable Door to make sure that catastrophes retrospectively don’t happen and thus no insurance payout is required.  Emily Spitzer works for Carrington’s, a firm much like JW Wells, and despite being five feet tall and “slightly built,” she is one of their best pest control people.  But when someone tries to kill her – and succeeds, multiple times – it falls to Frank to rescue her and save her insurance company millions.  And when a) they fall in love, as you knew they would, and b) the plot thickens all the way to the top, the story gets even better.  Holt writes deftly plotted books full of bittersweet humor and delicious turns of phrase, and this book is right there.

May Contain Traces of Magic (Tom Holt)

Trying to keep track of the plot in a Tom Holt novel can be a challenging business, as he is very good at building things up to a point where you think you see how it’s all going to be resolved and then turning a corner to display wholly unpredicted vistas, and then doing it again.  Chris works as a salesman, peddling JW Wells products to the various shops who sell them.  He has a girlfriend (Karen) with whom he does not particularly get along well, a friend (Jill) with whom he does and who is a demon hunter by trade, a trainee (Angela) who is both a nuisance and several times removed from what she appears, and a GPS unit (SatNav) who may or may not be evil.  Throw in a tragic incident from their school days together, an incipient civil war among the demons with humanity as collateral damage, a rogue Fey princess, and more twists and time travel than is probably healthy – as well as more than a few laugh-out-loud passages of extremely British humor (or “humour,” I suppose) – and you’ve got yourself another winner in the stories from the JW Wells series.

Swords and Dark Magic: The New Sword and Sorcery (Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders, eds.)

Anders and Strahan divide up the fantasy genre into two different areas.  First, they say, there is epic fantasy – the kind of large-scale clash of kingdoms that is perhaps most popularly associated with Tolkien.  And second, there is sword and sorcery, which tends to be smaller scale, rather grittier and more nuanced, and currently enjoying something of a revival.  Whether you buy this claim or not – Strahan and Anders produce an impressive pedigree of works and authors to support it in their introduction, though I retain my doubts – the simple fact is that this book contains seventeen original stories, almost all of them worth reading.  That alone is an accomplishment, though given the contributors perhaps it was to be expected.  I bought this because it had KJ Parker and Joe Abercrombie.  I enjoyed Glen Cook, Steven Erikson, Michael Shea and Scott Lynch.  What surprised me was how much I didn’t like Gene Wolfe and Michael Moorcock simply because of their writing styles.  Moorcock in particular writes like a parody of the genre, which might be because he was so instrumental in founding the genre that he’s what everyone parodies, though in either case I doubt I’ll be reading any more Elric stories as this one was quite a slog.  But the book as a whole is very much worth the time, and Lynch, Erikson and Cook in particular have moved up my list of authors to read.

Straight Man (Richard Russo)

William Henry Devereaux, Jr. (Hank to his colleagues, as we later discover) is the interim chair of the English Department at a backwater state university campus in central Pennsylvania.  A contrarian, a self-diagnosed mediocrity, and a member of a department riven by faction and several reforms away from being merely dysfunctional, on a campus where chronic underfunding and misplaced priorities mean that expensive construction projects exist side by side with cuts to personnel, Hank is about to have a wild week.  He will be mangled by one colleague, nearly seduced by another, and called upon to mediate his daughter’s marriage.  He will threaten to execute a goose on live television, teach any number of odd classes, deal with health crises and family situations, and face a recall election over his increasingly controversial term as interim chair.  All this told in Russo’s smooth, often laugh-out-loud funny prose.  It’s a book that makes me want to find more of Russo’s work.

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Sausages (Tom Holt)

This is a surprisingly gentle book for Holt, who tends toward either jam-packed plotting or bittersweet situations or both, even while he consistently provides some of the funniest stuff out there.  It’s also one of his more British books, both in feel and language (Holt rarely translates things into American, and a working knowledge of BBC America programming is a helpful thing to have when reading his books on this side of the Atlantic).  This is also the latest in the JW Wells & Co. saga, though only by inference.  It starts with a pig – hyperintelligent as all pigs are – and then quickly shifts over to Polly (a real-estate lawyer) and her brother Don (an advertising jingle writer) and the weirdness that happens to them when they run into a powerful artifact capable of folding realities one on top of another.  There’s also a dry-cleaning establishment that randomly moves every few days, a pair of knights who have been killing each other five times daily for seven hundred years but can’t remember why, a flock of chickens that used to be lawyers, and Stan Gogerty (“he’s a weirdness expert”), whose job it is to sort all this out.  And sort it out he does, eventually.  And then there is the pig again.

Chronicles of the Black Company (Glen Cook)

The Black Company

If you’ve ever wondered what fantasy novels look like from the bottom up, from the perspective of the grunt soldiers who make up the vast armies and serve the Dark Lords or Fair Princes that make up most of the genre, the Black Company series is for you.  The Black Company is a mercenary force of some centuries’ standing – “the last of the Free Companies of Khatovar” – and as all such forces are it is a tightly bound group of men, none of whom have actual names and all of whom are there in order to escape from something in their past.  The narrator is Croaker, the company physician and the man responsible for keeping the Annals, for telling the company’s story to the next generation of soldiers.  The company has any number of well-defined soldiers – Elmo, the Captain, the Lieutenant, Mercy, eventually Raven – as well as some in-house sorcerers (Silent, One-Eye, Goblin).  At the beginning of this novel they are in a decrepit city named Beryl on a commission from its leader that goes all sorts of wrong, and eventually they end up heading north in the service of the Lady, a powerful sorceress even older than the Black Company, recently resurrected and fighting the Rebel (always singular).  Her main servants are the Taken, sorcerers she has forcibly converted to her service.  The Taken who enlists the Black Company is called Soulcatcher.  Eventually the Black Company will find itself tangled in webs of intrigue, enmeshed in battle, and as darkly cynical as ever.  Cook writes in a curiously elided style, with gaps and inferences between events, but the grit and black humor make the stories work.  This is where Joe Abercrombie – stylistically a much different writer – got his general ambiance from.  It’s fantasy noir.

Shadows Linger

After the events of the first book, the Black Company now finds itself the prize fighting force of the Lady, which in practical terms means a lot of hard, thankless work and even more long marches over hundreds of miles of unforgiving terrain in order to do that work.  This book – rather more slow-paced than the first one – starts off with two separate stories, one featuring an innkeeper named Shed in a town called Juniper, and the other featuring the travails of the Company in another town called Tally.  Eventually an advance party of Black Company soldiers will be sent to Juniper and from there the stories converge.  The White Rose has been reincarnated and remains a threat to the Lady though not particularly to the Black Company.  And the Lady has an even more dire threat to handle – the possible return of her long buried husband, the Dominator (perhaps the only creature on earth more evil than she is, as Croaker often muses) through the medium of a black fortress built of the dead and overlooking Juniper.  As before, the action climaxes in thunderous battle, and the remains of the Black Company move on to the next crisis from there.

The White Rose

Perhaps the most intriguing character Cook has created in this series so far is not actually one of the Black Company – fascinating and sharply drawn as they are – but the Lady, the sorceress whom they have both fought and served, occasionally at the same time, as befits a mercenary company of soldiers.  Ruthless, cunning, and one of the recognized evils of their world (even by her own reckoning), she nevertheless has a depth and complexity that is hard to find in similar characters in other works.  She has a soft spot for Croaker.  She fears the Dominator and knows deeply that she is the only person who can prevent his return.  And all that collides in this book, much to Croaker’s chagrin and surprise.  “I hate it when they go human on you,” he says at one point.  “Enemies are not supposed to do that.”  The story opens with the remnants of the Black Company hiding in the Plain of Fear with the White Rose, nibbling at the edges of the Lady’s empire and just trying to hold on.  It will take them through missions and perils, history lessons and unforeseen alliances, until at last it ends where it had to end: a final confrontation with the Dominator himself in all his resurrected power.  But at the heart of it all is the Lady, a villain who in some ways is more the hero of this story than either Croaker or the White Rose.

The Book Thief (Markus Zusak)

The Book Thief is a sad and gentle story of slowly gathering horror.  How could it be otherwise?  It is a story of children in the Third Reich.  It is a story of kindness and poverty, of hard edges and warm hearts, of love, loss, and pain.  It is a meditation on the power of words and stories.  It is a tale of what happens when all of those things run headlong into the biggest and most destructive war in human history.  And it is narrated by Death, a careworn and ragged figure whose sympathy for his charges bleeds through on every page.  Liesel Meminger is a foster child, handed over by her mother in the opening scenes and sent to live with the Hubermanns – fierce Rosa and gentle Hans – in the small town of Molching.  There she makes a few friends, notably Rudy Steiner.  She learns to read.  She helps to harbor Jewish Max Vandenburg.  She even steals books, mostly from the Mayor’s ghostly wife, though how much is theft and how much is surreptitious gift-giving is hard to say.  For a while things work out, and then, as you would expect in the churning catastrophe of World War II, they don’t.  This is a haunting book, one that stays with you long after the last page is finished.  The final sentence of this book is one of my favorites in all of literature.

The Titan’s Curse (Rick Riordan)

When a rescue mission at a remote private school in Maine, one designed to save two new half-bloods (Bianca and Nico di Angelo) goes horribly wrong, Percy finds himself on yet another quest, this time to save both Annabeth and the goddess Artemis.  With Thalia, Grover, Bianca, and the Hunter Zoe Nightshade, he heads off across the country, pursued by indestructible skeletal warriors and finding clues and comfort in strange places.  The book climaxes with a battle against the Titan god Atlas and his ever-more-strained servant Luke, but it extends long enough past that to set up the next challenge.  Riordan’s writing remains light and humorous, but the series is slowly getting darker.

The Classics Reclassified (Richard Armour)

Humor gets dated very quickly, and as a historian I find that I can often identify when something written just by the bits that are supposed to be funny.  This is clearly a product of the 1950s, right down to the subject matter and the illustrations.  Armour – who wrote a series of books satirizing any number of topics in literature and history – aims his gentle parody at some of the larger figures and works in the Western literary canon, which alone tells you something.  There is no way this book would be published today, as few students have heard of, let alone read, most of the books Armour takes on.  In seven short chapters Armour presents short biographies of authors ranging from Homer to Walter Scott to George Elliot, and then takes a light-hearted romp through one of their best-known works.  So unless you have some sense of history and some familiarity with Silas Marner or Ivanhoe, the humor will likely escape you.  I’ve enjoyed Armour’s books since I found him in high school, back in the 1980s, but the biggest impression I got out of this one was just how far from his world we have come since he wrote it.


PDaniel said...

Always look forward to your list, Dave. It usually leads me to a new author to discover. I am curious, however, that a historian has only one history book on his list. Surely you also have to read things like "Toll Road Receipts of Maryland 1822 - 1835."

David said...

There's some history coming up in the next few parts. I like reading history, but I also like reading other things. :)