Thursday, January 6, 2011


So in order to categorize and make sense of the 100 books I read in 2010, I started to go through my reviews one by one over the last month. I took that long because I needed a break from this blog, and reporting on my reading. I've read 4 books since New Year's Day, which is happily off my pace enough that I'll not be reading anything close to 100 books this year. It's more than I usually read though, which is just swell.

Anyhow, going through the reviews was a humbling and exciting experience. There were books I'd forgotten about. There are books I think about every week. There were books I'll always remember hating and loving. And each one will come to mind when the more important subjects I absorbed from them appear in my everyday life. I'll always think about the Black Swan when dealing with the limitations of statistics, even if I didn't love the book. When people talk about Ulysses or Irish literature, I have a very specific experience and pool of knowledge in my head from reading that classic. The next time I read about Common Sense or The Prince, I'll have my own opinion about what those treatises actually say, separate from what the journalist/blogger/Tea Partier/relative thinks they say. Could I benefit from reading more about these subjects? Of course. Will I re-read some of these as the specifics drain out of my head through memory loss, other priorities, and time? I think so. Is there a point to reading these books if I am just going to forget 90% of what's in them?

Definitely. That's what being literate is, in my humble opinion. It's a process. Of keeping your brain, heart, soul, personality, memory - whatever - on its toes. And challenged. And informed. And in shape so that you can deal with the rapid-response day-to-day in a more intelligent, compassionate, worldly, empathetically, more literate way. You're never going to get to be fully literate. You're never going to get to be healthy/happy/satisfied/perfect. It's the process that makes you closer to those things, and it needs upkeep. Like a relationship or marriage or profession. The diploma doesn't mean anything if you neglect everything you've learned, or could STILL learn, about your degree. You've got to keep pushing your mind to open more, be ready for the unexpected, be able to learn something new.

I don't understand people - and I meet them all the time - that can't be told anything they don't know. At least, that's the facade some folks portray in conversation, and it drives me crazy. I love learning new things from people, and always try to stay open to new ideas and arguments - I hope I never answer everything that's told to me with some variation of "oh of course, I knew that."

Anyhow, enough ruminating - here's the list, divided by category, of everything I read last year. I'll be starting up the blog again and seeing where things go - perhaps providing some new voices and new directions. Even if no one reads it, it's still helpful to me to provide to structure to my experience.


I started the year by reading one of the first stories, Gilgamesh, on New Year's Day; Faulkner enervated me with The Sound And The Fury; Toni Morrison's writing made me smile despite depressing subject matter with The Bluest Eye; Jane Austen's wit, sarcasm, and self-awareness of the absurdity of Victorian courtship really impressed me in Pride and Prejudice;The Stranger didn't do much more for me than a bad Ford Prefect metaphor; I'm glad to have finally read The Giver; Flannery O'Connor's Everything That Rises Must Converge was a wonderful experience in loathing; Catch-22 was 100 pages too long but otherwise lived up to its reputation; The Log Of The S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine should be required reading for married couples, even if they don't like weird books; Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle could be in sci-fi but I'll arbitrarily stick it in classics - it was what I was hoping Catch-22 would be; well, and, I'm glad I finally read The Good Earth; Updike's Rabbit, Run was written exceedingly well though you can't stand the protagonist; I wished Things Fall Apart was better than it was; and Ulysses exists in its own category - my review will explain my impression of it.

Science Fiction

Ringworld was a classic novel-as-thought-experiment that managed to pace itself well; Blooodchild and Other Stories is a collection of Octavia Butler short stories I enjoyed quite a bit; Parable Of The Sower almost doesn't belong in science fiction - it's more believable post-apocalyptic than fantastical; Snow Crash was one of the better books that I'd delayed reading for years for no discernible reason; I finished a book on the Kindle for the first time with On Basilisk Station and quite enjoyed both the medium and the content; despite The Hunger Games' status as a couldn't-put-it-down young adult dystopian book lampooning reality TV, I didn't dislike it, though I think young adult editors should be meaner; Asimov's Foundation should be in "Classics" but I'll claim it in sci-fi; it was bittersweet to read a new Douglas Adams book, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency; and Ursula K LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness was a thought experiment about gender that I enjoyed on the whole.


George R. R. Martin's A Game Of Thrones remains an excellent gritty/realistic/adult addition to the genre; Neil Gaiman's short stories collection Fragile Things was on the whole very fun; Stardust, Gaiman's odd and grown-up take on fantasy was better than the movie; after enjoying American Gods, I checked out the sequel, Anansi Boys, and didn't dislike it; I finally read the buzz-worthy The Name Of The Wind and can't wait until the sequel comes out on March; and Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson's Towers of Midnight made the penultimate book in the Wheel of Time series into a solid standalone experience.


Richard Matheson's classic I Am Legend was much better than the Will Smith movie; I only read the not-really-horror Dead Until Dark because I enjoyed the first season of True Blood, but couldn't imagine that the writing would be so terrible (though I'm thinking of reading the sequel, barf); and I picked up Stephen King's short story collection Nightmares And Dreamscapes in the library because the audiobook was narrated by fun celebrities, and managed to rather enjoy his writing and storytelling.

Contemporary Fiction

Dave Eggers' What Is The What blew me out of the water with a near-biographical account of a Lost Boy of Sudan, combining Sudanese history with an honest look at American culture; The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao is one of the best books I've read all year; The Yiddish Policeman's Union was a spectacular counter-historical look at what an Israel located in Alaska would have been like, cloaked in a fascinating detective story; Chabon's short book The Gentlemen Of The Road was also very fun - a historical fiction novel looking at two guys in the real-life Jewish nation of Khazaria; you should go read The City And The City right now; Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine was as good as I had hoped it would be; The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears helped illuminate African immigrants' experiences in 1980s DC; The Kite Runner was shockingly worse than the movie it spawned; I almost finished the Chuck Palahniuk canon by enjoying Invisible Monsters; the curious incident of the dog in the night-time. managed to rise above high expectations and blow me out of the water; I fell in love with Barbara Kingsolver's writing with The Poisonwood Bible; after loving Wao, I had to try Drown, Diaz's short story collection about the DR and immigration; and Murakami's After Dark was a literary version of Lost In Translation.

Graphic Novels

Maus I & Maus II deserved the Pulitzer; I adored the too-short Bigfoot autobiography In Me Own Words (and didn't realize it was a graphic novel until it arrived in the mail); and I understood why Neil Gaiman has so many fanboys and fangirls after finishing the mammoth The Sandman.


Jonathan Livingston Seagull confused me (inspirational or Christ-figure? why doesn't he eat?), while Khalil Gibran's The Prophet was as good as the hype - a decent how-to-be-a-good-person manual.


I tried out my first book of poetry with Selected Poems Of Langston Hughes and enjoyed it much more than I thought I would.


I wanted to like Jon Stewart's fiction essay collection Naked Pictures Of Famous People more than I did but I probably read it 10 years too late, while Barbara Kingsolver's Small Wonder was largely very good and made me want to read her other essay collection.


I got blown away with knowledge in From Colony To Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776; it felt very appropriate to read Hunter S. Thompson's Hell's Angels while away at a raucous bachelor party in frigid Northern Maine; half personal reflection and half history of libraries, The Library At Night made me smile; Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation was a lot more fun and interesting than I thought it would be; The Victorian Internet should be required reading for anyone who uses the internet; I expected to like Sarah Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates more than I did; I suppose The Know-It-All is a history book, about a really annoying whiny guy who reads the encyclopedia A to Z and loves awful jokes, but I had to read it this year because I was doing something similar and can sometimes be whiny, annoying, and prone to telling stupid jokes; and Noam Chomsky's 9-11 was annoying to read but I'm glad he's writing.


David Plouffe's take on the Obama campaign made me scratch my head a bit in The Audacity to Win; The Nine is the best book about the Supreme Court I've ever read - okay it's the only one, but that doesn't mean it's not a fun and informative read; I unknowingly read about a friend's run-in with the Bush White House in Ron Suskind's The Way Of The World; I'm glad I read Paine's Common Sense so I can be sure that he wouldn't have been a Tea Partier; and The Prince was The Prince.


I'd recommend The First 90 Days to anyone starting a new job, and those who want to take a new look at their current job would also benefit; Ask The Pilot is exactly what it sounds - an interesting if slightly out-of-date Q&A with a pilot, about airlines and the airline industry.


I understood the value of efficient, close-together living in Green Metropolis; I found The Climate War to be a very helpful introduction to the current state of climate policy in the U.S.; Silent Spring should be required reading for people who eat food or work in the environmental community, though you may not like it; and Merchants of Doubt was a slog to get through, but informative.


I absolutely loved A History Of The World In Six Glasses and if you've ever drank beer, ate bread, lived in civilization, drank wine, drank hard alcohol, traded with anyone, drank tea, drank coffee, thought about something new, drank Coke, or lived in the last 60 years, you will too; Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma was eye-opening and interesting; Salt was everything I hoped it'd be, plus an extra 100 pages; Eating Animals was a very good rationale for vegetarianism, though I thought it would have been a better argument had reductionism been the goal and not absolute omission of meat from the diet; and after reading The Elements Of Cooking, I used the Thankgiving dinner turkey carcass to make delicious stock - I rest my case.

Social Science

My understanding of statistics was shaken with The Black Swan; Nickel And Dimed is almost a classic by now, of what working at the poverty line means in America; Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker story collection What The Dog Saw was engaging, fun, and informative; I betray social scientists by putting the atrocity Why We Buy into this category, but that's what he claims to be; and Made To Stick was a lot better than expected and actually helped me a lot for work.


Barack Obama's narration of the abridged audiobook of Dreams From My Father was pretty amazing; True Compass provided an honest and intelligent look back from Ted Kennedy; talk show host Craig Ferguson's American On Purpose was one of the better books I've read all year; and Steve Martin's Born Standing Up was really, really good, and not even that funny.


Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World was a fun, informative read on the value of science and skepticism in a world of irrationality; Proust Was A Neuroscientist was a fun summary of the senses and how disciplines other than science inform research about the mind; and The Well-Dressed Ape was a fun almost-complete owner's manual for the human body.


Most of my reading in this category was to prepare for trips to France and Australia. Talk To The Snail was a terrible book about the French; The Story Of French managed to be interesting and informative prior to my trip, though the last few chapters dragged in a way that suggested they should have been an appendix; Paris To The Moon was a really fun autobiographical collection of short stories by a New Yorker writer who had moved to Paris to protect his infant son from the worst of America; Bill Bryson's Neither Here Nor There was a really fun romp through Europe; Salman Rushdie's The Jaguar Smile was an interesting look at Nicaragua; Cold Beer & Crocodiles was a fun look at small-town coastal Australia from a bicyclist's perspective, though I was sad at the lack of crocs; African environmental policy got a thorough and thoughtful treatment in The Challenge For Africa; I had a tough time getting through the definitive history of Australia's penal past, The Fatal Shore, but am glad I did; I tried to remember if I'd read Bryson's A Sunburned Country or not; and Sydney: The Story Of A City was an informative if slightly frustrating introduction to an amazing city.

And fortunately, I had a longer list of books I loved than books I didn't like. I didn't hate a single book on my list, but there were definitely some duds. If I were picking books at random at a bookstore, I would certainly have a longer "Bottom" list:

Top 23

A History Of The World In Six Glasses

The Bluest Eye

Pride and Prejudice

Dreams From My Father

What Is The What

The Nine

The Omnivore's Dilemma

The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao

The City And The City

American On Purpose

Snow Crash

The Mezzanine

the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.

The Victorian Internet

Born Standing Up

What The Dog Saw

The Poisonwood Bible

The Log Of The S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine

Cat's Cradle

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency

Made To Stick

Rabbit, Run

The Sandman

Bottom 10

The Sound And The Fury

The Black Swan

Green Metropolis

The Stranger

Talk To The Snail

The Kite Runner

The Know-It-All

Naked Pictures Of Famous People

Why We Buy

Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 numbers

365 days
100 books
35,691 pages (average of 357 per book)
53 library books
34 audiobooks
6 books read on Kindle
53 fiction/47 nonfiction
21 by dead authors (according to scattered Wikipedia searches)
33 by authors who are not white males
2 graphic novels
5 books on the World Library's 100 Best Books of All Time list
0 Goosebumps, board books, or children's books

And just in case you thought I did nothing but read this year...

1 new job
3 rooms of self-installed eco bamboo floors (2.5 tons carried in box by box)
3 international trips
3 walls repaired from drywall cracks
52 episodes of Mad Men
0 comprehensive climate legislative victories
28 teeth straightened
3 concerts
1 very understanding and devoted wife

All in all, not so bad. I'll have more thoughts later once I recover a bit more from Ulysses!

Here's the list in reverse chronological order if you want to peruse. Let me know what you think...

one frickin' hundred

Ulysses (Gabler Edition)
Ulysses is the kind of book you could read again and again and again and again and always absorb a different narrative or interpretation - but right now it's a book I'd be happy to leave where it is and never look at again. I'll still agree with someone if they tell me it's one of the best books of all time. I still gave it 4 out of 5 stars. I recognize its brilliance, its completeness, its revolutionizing effect on literature and the English language. But boy was it hard to get through.

I mean - again, can I really say anything about this book that hasn't already been said thousands of times before?

It's long.

It's brilliant.

It's aggravating.

It's so complex and uses so many styles, devices, lack of devices, structure and total lack of structure that at times you feel entirely at sea and unsure why you decided to read such a monster.

It's about nothing (the plot is an ordinary day in an ordinary life where a cuckolded husband wakes up, eats, does errands, thinks a lot, goes to a funeral, works a tiny bit, spaces out, commits every single one of his thoughts to memory, masturbates, hallucinates, feels shameful, rescues a drunk guy from a whorehouse, invites him home, and gets into bed with his unfaithful wife) and everything (Ireland, the English language, marriage, sex, religion, blasphemy, atheism, food, poop, pee, birth, death, women, men, poetry, work, leisure, ancestors, family, expectations, whimsy, planning, alcohol, money, progress, anachronism, monarchy, bureaucracy, advertising, scholarship, bathing, not bathing, teaching, inattention, apathy, shame, pretentiousness, death, life, home, sailing, Western views of non-Western cultures, infidelity, loyalty, childhood, loss, cats, petticoats, and farts).

It wouldn't be honest for me to say that I read the whole thing. I'd be shocked if more than a few thousand scholars on the planet read every single word of that book and understood it. The process of reading this book encapsulated perfectly the goal of this blog - to examine reading and what it means to be literate. When I read forty pages containing fewer than eight periods, or 150 pages of the weirdest play ever written, or a nine-part examination the English language in a scene where a baby is born and a group of guys go to a bar, I freely admit that I didn't absorb every word. I didn't get every reference, I didn't pick up each parodic joke.

But I think that's okay. Reading a book like this is an experience that is hopefully more enjoyed than endured. I enjoyed large parts of it. I endured some parts of it. I expect to go back and read chunks later in my life. But for now, I'm excited beyond measure to be done with the beast.

In general, Joyce seems to have - in my limited literate understanding of books and writing - shifted the tectonic plates of what literature means. I would guess that Ulysses truly pioneered different methods of examining the day-to-day life of humans so that I get to enjoy work by Nicholson Baker and Chuck Palahniuk and friends. That's pretty cool.


Merchants of Doubt

Merchants of Doubt was a work read that covered the basics of how science gets ignored, drowned out, overcompensated, and warped to advance the ends of the industry sponsoring the "research" effort. Essentially a few scientists that have gravitas because of past work on atomic weapons get paid to say that the research done on cigarette smoke, greenhouse gases, the ozone layer, acid rain, or secondhand smoke should be doubted. These scientists are often the same individuals across fields - Misters Seitz and Singer, etc, are called upon to doubt voluminous research finding cigarettes to be dangerous, anthropogenic (man-made) global warming, a depleted ozone layer, the effects of acid rain. They aren't experts in these fields, and yet the media reports both the conclusions of experts AND these schmucks to provide "balance." It's infuriating to the experts and to us, the laypeople who don't want to breathe air that will kill us and our children or destroy the ecosystem that's sustained so much human progress. Oreskes and Conway do a great job of showing how these unscientists push back on real science with industry support.

What I didn't like about the book, other than the slight dryness of the prose, is that they didn't tell us the status of the research done that did not side with the vast majority of established theorems. Were there studies that found we're not causing global warming, or that secondhand smoke is actually healthy for you? Tell us there definitely weren't, or if there were, that they were bunk and how. The focus on how the rhetorical war was won (or lost) was very useful for someone in my line of work, but I wanted to see if the other side had a single half-leg to stand on.

Regardless, it's a great book and I'm glad I read it.


The Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula K. Leguin is one of those names you see pretty prominently in the sci fi section and she's always been on my to-read list. Starting with the award-winning novel about gender and identity and cold weather and connecting with the outside world seemed like a no-brainer. I'm glad I read The Left Hand of Darkness, but didn't enjoy it as much as I tend to enjoy sci-fi. It was a thought experiment more than a plot-driven novel, as science fiction used to be 40 years ago. What would happen if people didn't have assigned genders, but came into a particular sex for a little while to mate and then reproduce? How would that affect civilization? What would that mean for personal relationships, families, global conquest, and personality? Le Guin's conclusion isn't really one - it's more of a rumination. People would be less aggressive, and would be suspicious of an entity purporting to be a representative of a large conglomeration of human planets. The story was interesting, starting in cities and ranging through tundra, work farms, and continents. I'm glad I read it and I think you should too, if you like sci-fi.


Towers of Midnight (Wheel of Time, #13; A Memory of Light, #2)
Brandon Sanderson has done it again - mostly. For those who are unfamiliar with Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, it's a Lord of the Rings-style fantasy epic that began in the early 90s and still has not come to a conclusion. The books are enormous (regularly pushing 900-1000 pages), the scope has broadened to hundreds of characters, and, this being a fantasy series, the fate of the world is on the protagonists' shoulders. Robert Jordan plugged away for about 6 books of stellar quality, and then he lagged for several volumes that saw main characters forgotten, plotlines stagnate, annoying plotlines introduced, and very little happen. The series started to pick up with the publication of The Knife of Dreams - Things Started Happening - but then the poor guy got sick and died. Fortunately his wife and editor picked a younger author to finish off the "last" volume. That volume turned into three - and thus far it's been a good "final trilogy." There aren't many slow moments so he can be forgiven for expanding it into three books... a lot needed to happen to achieve resolution. We're currently hurtling toward The Last Battle (yes, it's even capitalized in the book), and people are Doing Things and Stuff Is Happening. And it's entertaining and well written. I won't spoil it for anyone who hasn't read it, but I'd highly recommend giving it a shot. My only quibble is the voice of Mat, one of the main characters, who seemed a bit off, though not so much that his long-awaited chapter wasn't mostly fulfilling. Can't wait for the (really) last book!


Small Wonder: Essays

I'm beginning to love Barbara Kingsolver - after reading The Poisonwood Bible I was happy to have stumbled over Small Wonder: Essays in the library. I'd recommended reading this - she narrates the audiobook version and her drawl and Southern accent makes her sound a bit like Diane Rehm. I got used to it after the first (rather slow) few essays. After that it was great story after great point after excellent argument. This was written shortly after 9/11, so there are some ruminations about war and fear and government, but she shines the most when she writes a simple letter to her 13-year-old daughter, and then one to her mother. She writes about independent bookstores, sustainable living, and TV. I enjoyed nearly all of them, both in terms of her writing and her points. I'm a bit fried right now (just finished Ulysses) and am not reviewing this with enough gusto, but I'd recommend it - I'll be looking for her earlier collection of essays - High Tide in Tucson.

Saturday, December 25, 2010


Things Fall Apart

I wasn't quite sure what to make of Things Fall Apart through the first half - and then I got the hang of it once the conflict coalesced and the tribes found an Other. Everyone and their brother has read this book except for me - so I'm glad I read it. It's well done, especially for its time, and the first half gives you a slice of African village life and family traditions and religious mysticism through a protagonist who's got some daddy issues. I couldn't get the hang of it because the narrative was so episodic when that was definitely not what I was expecting. He also writes it in almost a fable-like format, which is really interesting, but can seem simple at times. But the relationships and the fears and the community that are all manifested in the trials and tribulations of this man and his family were well done. Nigeria is obviously a different country than the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but I could see this book being what existed before the Price family arrived in Africa in the Poisonwood Bible.

The second half was a bit more what I expected - white come in, mess with the local culture through a mix of technology, religion, government, well-meaning, cruelty, and ignorance. Perhaps Achebe was able to open some eyes with the way he ended it. I thought it was fitting. All in all, I'm glad I read it. I'm sure you already did.

Monday, December 13, 2010


The Absolute Sandman, Vol. 1

What? A comic book? Does that even count as a "real book?" I would submit, based upon reviews and awards given through two decades, that it does. Could be even more than a real book. Many superlatives are thrown the The Sandman's way, and I see why. I was very, very impressed with the story, the writing, the art, the complexity of the plot - but at its core, it's about stories. This is Gaiman's wheelhouse - he likes a good yarn.

The Sandman is one of the Endless - seven eternal anthropomorphized aspects of human consciousness: destiny, death, dream, destruction, desire, despair, delight/delirium. Dream is the Sandman, and he oversees what we, and all things, dream and hope and fear. He's close to omnipotent, yet manages to not make things boring. He's complex, and grows, and bad things happen to him that he tries to fix, and often can't. He's got a crazy family, some offspring that cause trouble, and is always dealing with other supernatural entities to preserve the dreamland - wondrous and terrifying - from unspooling. He manages to walk out of Hell because he reminds Lucifer's host of demons that Hell would be nothing were it not for the dream of Heaven. He inspires Shakespeare, he helps lost children. He exacts revenge on lovers that he thinks had spurned him. And he manages to do this all with the utmost serenity. The scope of these ten huge collections are enormous. I read the first three in an enormous anthology, and then the rest in smaller paperbacks. The art is rather good, and the writing is always fun and interesting. Very few full spots. And though lots happens in America and the UK, a lot else happens in the rest of the world - not a pantheon of gods are neglected, and very few nationalities are ignored.

But the story soars through our highest hopes to our deepest fears, our funniest jokes to our most disgusting gore, our boring day-to-day to the heights of fantasy. Sometimes the day-to-day is what Dream wants most - the scene I'll remember most is him and his sister Death (who looks like what all the Goth chicks want to look like) feeding the pigeons in New York. Two supernatural uberdeities, and all they want to do is nourish the birds.

Clive Barker does this better justice:
"There is a wonderful, willful quality to this mix: Mr. Gaiman is one of those adventurous creators who sees no reason why his tales shouldn't embrace slapstick comedy, mystical musings, and the grimmest collection of serial killers this side of Death Row. He makes this combination work because he has a comprehensive knowledge of the medium and knows where his strengths lie. He has also - and this is infinitely more important than being a Comic Brat - a point of view about the world which he uses the anarchic possibilities of the medium to express. After all, where can the glorious, the goofy, and the godlike stand shoulder to shoulder? Where else can the bubble-gum hearts, the dream travelers, the serial killers, and the occasional guest-star from beyond the grave all occupy the same space? If the sheer profusion of these inventions and the apt absurdity of some of the juxtapositions puts you in mind of on of your more heated dreams, then surely that's what Mr. Gaiman intends. Forget what he's written on the title page. Hero and author are here synonymous. For the time you spend in these pages, Mr. Gaiman is the Sandman. And look! He just brought you a dream."


After Dark

I liked the writing in After Dark enough that I'd want to read something else by Hakuri Murakami, but not enough to actually have enjoyed the book a great deal. It's essentially a literary translation of a typical night spent by the Japanese people the Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson hung out with in Lost in Translation. The characters themselves aren't very important, and neither is the plot - it's the interesting writing. In fact, it has the feel of a screenplay, because he addresses the reader directly - "our viewpoint pans across the room" etc. It does jostle your perspective and expectations in a fun way - you linger over a cell phone sitting on a shelf in a 7-11, or stay looking at a mirror after someone leaves a room. I'd recommend if that's the sort of thing you're looking for, but I'd imagine I'll find I like his other plot-centered stuff a bit more.